Zathura: A Space Adventure Review
Be careful what you wish for
A New Adventure From the World of Jumanji
Sibling rivalry. Simultaneously the most frustrating and the most rewarding bond between families. This is, perhaps, especially true between brothers, for males have a genetic disposition to compete, be that sports, creativity or affection. Such swings of emotion have been the main stay of many a feature film because it is something that many can relate too and empathise with. Seldom though has it been a major component of a kids fantasy film, but it is exactly that which comprises no small portion of Zathura, a new fantasy space adventure from Jon 'Elf' Favreau and Chris van 'Jumanji' Allsburg.
Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) two brothers that are constantly bickering, much to the annoyance of their recently divorced father (Tim Robbins). The pair cannot agree on anything, Walt, the elder at age ten sees his younger brother at age six and three quarters as nothing but an annoying brat, constantly berating him for his behaviour. Danny, meanwhile, feels inferior to his elder brother but at the same time wants to play with him. The pair also jostle for their fathers affection, anyone who has suffered through divorce or separation can relate to how hard such situations are for all concerned. When dad has to go out to the office to replace a poster accidentally ruined by the boys fighting, the pair are left in the charge of their teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) who wants nothing to do but sleep in bed 'preparing' herself for her date later. After a particularly spiteful trick played on Danny, he finds himself in the cellar and on his way back spies a colourful game box. Taking the box upstairs Danny insists he wants Walt to play, though Walt wants nothing to do with him. The game is Zathura, an old windup tin game that is much more than it seems. After turning the key and setting the game in motion the entire house is transported into outer space where the occupants are menaced by meteors, killer robots, carnivorous reptilian aliens and their own inability to get along. The only way home is to finish the game, but when every turn unleashes a new terror will they have the courage to continue and finish what was started.
Ok, it probably hasn't escaped your notice that that quick plot description is pretty much a replication of Jumanji. Not surprising to find that it was penned by the same author. The tagline for the film gleefully promotes Zuthira as “from the world of Jumanji” thus inviting comparison, this is the films blessing, this is the films curse. Jumanji itself was the 1995 Robin Williams vehicle; there was little depth to the film it being developed to showcase the then state of the art visual effects. The result was a light entertaining family film that became a huge success. Zathura was developed at the time to be a sequel, and even now is promoted as such, however apart from the magical board game the two films are worlds apart. Jumanji is about a magical board game, Zathura contains a magical board game for at its heart Zathura is a study of Danny and Walter's relationship, their journey to understanding each others feelings and to move on with their lives. This emotional journey is mirrored in their magical journey, with each bump in the road manifesting as another emotional development. The arrival of the robot that is ostensibly mean to Walter, he metaphorically becomes the 'younger brother'. His decision to 'reprogram' the robot as a protector rather than a tormentor is emblematical of his own inward journey. The arrival of the lost astronaut represents the boy's conscience; the revelation of his origins explains this and thus guides his actions and ultimately his fate. As such Danny grows beyond inferiority and begins to understand, for he has the biggest part to play. Although there is no actual hint to this during the films conclusion: the entire episode could almost be summed up as Danny's imagination, the realisation of all his aspirations veiled in an allegorical tale of space exploration; (this too would explain away some of the more obvious plot contrivances such as air and gravity in a house floating in space) for while the house is adrift in the endless expanse of space, he is still trapped in his own domain. And only when he realises the folly of his actions and the consequences of them is he allowed to escape the trap he himself made.
Favreau skilfully directs the complex story with ease helped enormously by the exceptional performances from the two boy actors. Ok, it's not Oscar winning performances, but their bickering appears genuine and their play together even more so; witness the boys first explanation of the game to Lisa, over talking, excitement, terror all with subtly that has you believing they are actually brothers. The film rests firmly on their little shoulders as the 'adult' actors have precious little to do being almost cameos. Robbins breathes enough life into the exasperated father figure, Dax Shepard as the astronaut has enough charm to pull his role together and Stewart just looks pretty, which she does very well. Favreau's decision to have as much practical effects as possible also keeps the film solid, the minimal amount of GC used to enhance rather than swamp the exceptional visual effects. It is the eye candy that keeps the kids entertained, with the evolving story giving the adults something to latch onto. Now while all I've said sounds like praise, and indeed it is, personally I don't think the film quite works. As I said above its similarity to Jumanji is both a blessing and a curse; as a blessing it will bring in the crowds expecting a family entertainment visual feast, but what you get is a complex morality tale wrapped up in a visual feast and thus may prove to be its undoing; the curse. There is too much 'space adventure' to be a drama and too much 'drama' for a space adventure. With this meandering between the two serving to slow the films pace in places before taking off at break neck speed. Perhaps a little more even pacing might have made for a more satisfying watch. Even without the 'Jumanji' tag I think the film remains a slightly flawed work, however both my kids (they are the same age as the boys depicted in the film) really enjoyed it (there is precious little fighting after it has finished as well) and it has hardly been out of the player since its first play, so it does contain enough entertainment to keep its value.
Finally I'd like to mention the horror in the film, whilst not blatant, Favreau does an excellent job of creating tension especially when the Zorgons board the house. Ever one to hover in the dark corridors, Favreau rarely lets up; it is real 'behind the sofa' watching. I really liked this decision especially with the certificate (it is uncut compared to the British cinema release), kids love a good scare and this film has them in spades, it's probably one of the reasons the disc has hardly been removed from my player. Luckily Favreau is good at this because we know there is no real danger as once the game is finished everything reverts to normal as per Jumanji. However Zathura knows its target audience and has hit them fair and square, it's up to the rest of us to keep up or shut up. Zathura? Enjoy.