Touted as a loose sequel to 1995’s excellent Jumanji, Zathura has the special effects wizardry and kiddie humour of the aforementioned Joe Johnston family film, but lacks its imagination.
Of course, having dorky American kids cast in central roles is a delicate issue: it could either go very badly, as was the case in the first Star Wars prequel, or it could brilliantly, as was the case with the first two Home Alone films. Thankfully, in that sense, Zathura holds up rather well.
Two squabbling brothers – Walter played by Josh Hutcherson (the cocky older one) and Danny played by Jonah Bobo (the younger, lonely one) – are at each other’s throats when they spend the day with their dad. Their older sister doesn’t want to know them and their dad is busy trying to work at home in preparation for an important meeting. While their dad is out, Danny discovers an old board game called Zathura in the cellar. He begs the apathetic Walter to play the game with him. The board game whisks them (including their sleeping sister) and their house into outer space.
Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also penned novels that offered inspiration for The Polar Express and Jumanji, Zathura nicks ideas from The Wizard Of Oz (flying house), eighties cult TV series classic V (lizard-like baddies) and even Jumanji (a board game that causes all the raucous).
Zathura may appeal to pre-adolescents more so than adults, and even more than to teenagers who are perhaps into darker, more action packed fantasy films. What could have broadened the film’s audience appeal is the route, say, The Incredibles or Sky High took, using cheeky references to past sc-fi classics, or stealing character names from nostalgic monster B-movie and mocking the mundane trappings of everyday life. It could have brought a much-needed depth to what is essentially a superficial family fantasy film.
But Zathura is meant to entertain more then offer social or cinematic commentary. The special effects are, as you would expect, spot on and the direction by Jon Favreau (perhaps best known in the UK as Pete Becker – Monica’s ex-boyfriend – in Friends) is basic but engaging.
When Danny plays the game, it’s like opening up Pandora’s Box, but instead of bringing Pinhead and his evil goons to present day Earth, he opens up a world of trouble that involves spinning into space, finding a lost astronaut (played by Dex Shepard), and battling some scary looking lizards and a huge robot (voiced by Frank ‘Yoda’ Oz).
David Koepp’s script is necessarily light-hearted and funny at times, and Tim Robbins makes a fairly brief and unmemorable appearance at the beginning and end of the film as the stressed father.
Zathura is good family fun but hardly memorable. Seeing as the best family SF/fantasy films are mostly fully computer generated these days and have incredibly smart scripts, Zathura – just like the board game – feels like it has only just been discovered after long hibernation from its pre-nineties roots.