Jonah Bobo, Dax Shepard and Josh Hutcherson in Columbia Pictures Zathura - 2005
A film version of award-winning artist Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura, a tale of a space board game that transports it’s players to the stars, seems like a no-brainer, considering the potential for a marriage of computer generated effects and Allsburg’s brilliant visuals. However, a no-brainer in Hollywood often means just that. Luckily, Zathura avoids the pitfalls of it’s predecessor, the similarly themed, yet braying and frenetic Jumanji, and emerges as a clever, fun family outing.
Danny and Walter are two young brothers who are the very picture of kids for our times - that is, they are children of divorced parents. This week is Dad’s and, though he does his best, it looks like work is going to intrude on time with the boys once again. Walter, ten years old and bitter, is forced to interact with his pesky six-year old brother, and the strain of it is about to cause him to snap. To make matters worse, Danny has just produced the geekiest thing he could find - a 1950’s era space board game, complete with little tin space ships that run on tiny mechanized tracks. “Lame,” is all the response Walter can muster. Ever eager to engage his brother, Danny plows ahead with the game which, much to the boys’ surprise, causes meteors to pepper the living room, turning the floors into swiss cheese and very nearly obliterating the family gerbil. And that’s not the half of it. Stunned, the boys open the front door to find that their house, previously nicely settled on a quiet suburban street, is now orbiting what can only be the planet Saturn. And on it goes, with each taking their turn, bringing ever more adventure and danger, in an attempt to win the game and make it back home. Along the way they are joined by a somewhat irritated yet wholly terrified older sister, a stranded astronaut, and a whole bevy of snarling, hungry lizard aliens called Zorgons.
Though the themes of the film are pretty simplistic (Don’t be mean to your siblings. Follow the rules your parents set down. Don’t anger a Zorgon.) the plot line is pretty clever, which is no wonder considering its source material. Chris Van Allsburg is one of the most successful children’s book author’s of all time, penning and drawing classics like Jumanji and The Polar Express, as well as lesser known favorites of mine like The Mysteries of Harris Burdick. It’s his fervent and detailed imagination, brought to life in beautiful illustrations, that have made him such a sought after property in Hollywood. Too bad the film versions of the two former books both were disappointing, especially in the case of the hugely expensive Polar Express. Zathura, on the other hand, takes advantage of Allsburg’s fantastical vision and brings it to life expertly, in most cases, as well as keeping the saccharin to a minimum.
Featuring a cast of relative unknowns, the acting in the film is at least on par with any other children’s film you’ve seen, if not better. Tim Robbins has a small role as the father, and exudes patience and charm, though I don’t know how much acting that requires for him. At the helm is Jon Favreau, director of Elf, who brings a similarly good hearted charm to the film. But the real stars are the effects and production teams, who achieve the desired effect of bringing vintage space toys to life and realistically placing them in grand vastness of space. The shots of the house floating amid an asteroid field just off the ringed giant is pure Van Allsburg, and for once the effects do him justice.
Zathura is, for once, a truly family friendly film. I mean that, not only in the context of a lack of offensive content, but also in that it is something all ages will potentially enjoy. From its beautifully designed opening credits tour of the inner workings of the game, to the thrilling finale, Zathura is a space odyssey worth taking. Grade: B+
Zathura is rated PG for mild language and a few space scares.
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