Review: ‘Zathura’

For kids, it’s a live-action video game with a healthy chunk of moral fiber. For grown-ups, it strips away adulthood and bestows the innocence of childhood for the duration of the film (for those who will allow it).

Danny (Jonah Bobo) looks up to his older brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson), but Walter wants nothing to do with him while competing for time with their dad (Tim Robbins) since the separation of their parents. After dad briefly leaves to run an errand, Danny finds an old, mechanical science fiction game called “Zathura: A Space Adventure” and begs his brother to play. When he refuses, Danny starts the game without him; he turns the key, presses the button, his piece moves and a card is ejected from the game. It doesn’t take long for the two brothers to realize that what’s on the card actually happens and that they’re not in Kansas anymore…

Zathura is a throwback to any childhood rife with action figures and Star Wars toys where the entire house was depths of space and every room was another mysterious planet. The game itself, which influences every aspect of the production, is a dated preview of what everyone though the future would be: Flash Gordon-inspired rocket ships with riveted plating, red-eyed mechanical robots with pincers for hands, and all influences of the space opera genre. Combining the two for a Jumanji-inspired lesson in family values makes for a fun family adventure that doesn’t talk down to its target audience while still providing plenty of entertainment.

And speaking of Jumanji (of which Zathura was another of children’s book by the same author, Chris Van Allsburg), this film invites plenty of similar themes: a magical game that alters reality, stern consequences for not heeding the game’s warnings, and the hope that finishing the game will undo any damage. The differences in the game also define the difference in the genre; Jumanji was a mystical jungle adventure with enchanted moving pieces and a center piece that spouted rhymes, while Zathura is a mechanical game that must be cranked up and spits out cards that can be saved for later play.

In terms of story, however, the films are very different. Jumanji‘s “child inspired to grow up in the eyes of his dad” was hijacked by Robin Williams’ appearance as the older version of the child, undermining the child-centric focus of the film and pushing it into the background for all but the film’s ending. Under the directorial eye of Jon Favreau (recently off his surprise hit Elf), the Zathura game really exists to create a series of tasks to test the mettle of the players and reinforce the “brothers looking out for one another” family message. Only once in the film does this become heavy handed in an almost too magical a moment, but the intention seems sincere.

The cast is convincing enough and the film is fun, but the underwhelming feeling that this is a mere sequel to Jumanji (not to mention a retro-sci-fi feature) may keep intended audiences away. Having said that, it’s a far better family film than many this year with a positive message at no extra charge. With theatrical family fare turning to “the CGI featured animal characters of the week,” it’s nice to see humans and humanity at the center of a children’s adventure set among the stars. Of course, if all of that were happening to one of us at that age, we might not think it was much fun at the time, but that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?

(a three skull recommendation out of four)

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