Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins, Dax Shepard
Director: Jon Favreau
“Zathura” has a “Last Starfighter” kind of charm to it; it’s hopelessly behind the times in terms of what kids – and adults – want and expect from a sci-fi fantasy, and yet there is something oddly appealing about it. Maybe it’s the fact that the filmmakers know they’re making something terribly uncool. The source material for “Zathura” may only be four years old, but it, like its predecessor “Jumanji” (both the work of children’s author Chris Van Allsburg), feel like they were written in the ‘50s. If you buy the premise as an idea from a bygone era, with the characters getting a modern makeover, then the movie works pretty well. The acting isn’t great, but it least it doesn’t have an overcaffeinated Robin Williams in it like “Jumanji” did, not to mention the atrocious special effects that movie had.
The story begins with Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) at the house of their father (Tim Robbins). Walter, who looks about 10 years old, is the bully jock, and Danny is the imaginative, unathletic little brother that is the constant subject of Walter’s scorn. Dad has to do some work, so the boys are left with nothing to do. Danny accidentally hits Walter in the face with a ball, and when Walter banishes him to the basement, Danny finds a board game called Zathura. He brings it upstairs, and Walter reluctantly agrees to play with him. With the first move in the game, the events in the game begin to come to life. A meteor storm pounds the living room, and before the boys know it, the house is floating in outer space. In order to get back home, they must play the game to its completion, but before that happens, they encounter an astronaut, a haywire robot, and Zorgons, a nasty reptile race of aliens that eat meat. When that fact doesn’t register right away with Danny, the astronaut (Dax Shepard) says, “Dude. You’re meat.”
Say what you will about the been-there, done-that nature of the story; the near absence of CGI effects is quite refreshing. The Zorgons are actual people in costumes. The robot (voiced by Frank Oz, of all people), is an actual guy in a costume. Pop culture references are kept to a bare minimum. Remember when movies were like this? It’s pretty cool, in a naïve sort of way.
However, it’s only kind of cool. Hutcherson and Bob are not going to make anyone forget Haley Joel Osment or Dakota Fanning anytime soon, though their sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart, Jodie Foster’s diabetic daughter in “Panic Room”) is thoroughly convincing as a teenage girl, sleeping all day and commanding a fear-of-God respect from her little brothers. Pity she spends five turns in the game frozen solid. Astronaut Shepard, meanwhile, looks uncannily like Zach Braff, and does a decent job playing both foil and friend to the boys. Robbins looks severely distracted and impatient with the boys, but then again, he’s distracted by his work and impatient with the boys for fighting every five seconds. So in that regard, he nails his role.
If I were watching “Zathura” through my 10 year-old eyes, it would probably be the greatest movie ever made. Today’s 10 year-olds, however, live in a completely different world than I did. Will this kind of thing appeal to them? We crusty movie critics remember when all sci-fi movies looked like “Zathura” (or worse), but the boys at whom this movie is aimed have likely never even heard of “The Last Starfighter,” never mind seen it. “Zathura” is cute, it contains some valuable lessons about being nice to your siblings, and it’s going to get steamrolled by Chicken Little this week and Harry Potter next week. When you make a movie that looks like the stuff on TV, then you should probably cut your losses – something Sony would know a lot about this year – and ship it straight to video.
The single-disc release of "Zathura" actually has a decent supply of bonus features to choose from, including an audio commentary with director Jon Favreau and Peter Billingsley, a making-of featurette and and visual effects documentary. Other special features available include "The Cast of Zathura," "Zorgons, Robots and Frozen Lisa," "Making of the Game," "Miniatures and the World of Zathura," and "The World of Chris Van Allsburg."