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film review ***: ...Zathura... an Entertaining Adventure

Fresh Film Adaptation From the Author of ...Polar Express... and ...Jumanji...

By Nikhil Nadkarni


Directed by John Favreau

Written by Chris Van Allsburg and David Koepp

Starring Tim Robbins, Kristin Stewart, Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, and Dax Shepard

Rated PG

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At our age, watching a kids’ movie induces both awkwardness and enjoyment. On one hand, you begin to realize that the stories which you would have liked as a kid are actually clumsy — you know this if you have ever watched a “Full House” rerun. On the other hand, if you get beyond this initial shock, you realize that the sense of adventure in many kids’ movies still appeals to your imagination and is still entertaining, especially if it’s a well-made film.

This is the case with “Zathura,” a new Columbia Pictures’ release directed by Jon Favreau (“Elf”). The movie starts out with some standard clumsy drama about the difficulties of a single-parent household and a dose of fifth-grade humor. But once you get beyond these annoyances, the well-made “Zathura” takes you on an incredible adventure that is simultaneously amusing and thrilling.

It begins when Danny and Walter, ages six and 10, are at home, bored, with only their teenaged sister to provide some authority. The boys — who have an uncanny resemblance to the older Taylor boys from “Home Improvement” — begin to argue over what to do. Eventually, they discover a dusty old game in the basement called Zathura. Danny starts playing and, without warning, the siblings now find their house drifting through outer space, ripped out of the ground with the surrounding dirt still attached. With each play of the game, a new threat strikes them in their two-story shingled Cape of a spaceship — meteor showers, alien attacks, and gravity fields, to name a few.

At this point, the similarity to another movie becomes apparent. I speak of course of “Jumanji,” the 1995 hit in which two kids begin to play an old board game, with a new disaster supernaturally arriving with each turn. Indeed, both are written by Chris Van Allsburg. The basic premises of the story are effectively the same, but the nature of the adventures is fundamentally different enough for both movies to be enjoyable.

The incredible sense of adventure is what makes “Zathura” so captivating. We are watching two elementary school kids, who probably aren’t even allowed to walk to school by themselves, being swept off into space to face all sorts of problems. The perils they face from this creaky old board game are the most unexpected of dangers; indeed, the movie does a good job of emphasizing the sheer incredulity of it all. All they have, as their house hurtles through space, is each other, and all they can do is somehow save their skins and get back home. There is no time for saving the house or for heroics, and this only heightens the thrill of it.

It all makes you wonder what things you would do if you were a kid in this situation. Additionally, the journey through space is backed by great imagery; the shots of the house flying through space, with the soil still clinging to the foundation, are quite surreal.

However, the enthusiasm in the story begins to drop off after the halfway mark. This is due in part to the brothers’ constant arguing, which really slows down the movie. For comparison, the plot of “Jumanji” is tighter and more thrilling than that of “Zathura.” But I suppose the fraternal tension is necessary for the moral-of-the-story end scene in which the brothers reconcile and presumably decide to never fight again.

I could not help but notice how weakly the boys were played by Jonah Bobo and Josh Hutcherson. Even for child actors, the two do a mediocre job of capturing excitement. To illustrate: if you opened your front door and suddenly saw Saturn drifting by, you would be shocked out of your mind. Danny and Walter, however, sort of gasp and go back to fighting over the TV. At least the older sister is played by Kristin Stewart (“Panic Room”) much more convincingly.

In the end, the amusing, incredible adventure these kids go on outweighs the poor acting and the faltering energy of the movie’s second half. I recommend giving this movie a shot. You’ll probably discover that some of the things you found cool back in fifth grade are still pretty badass.