Talented actor-turned-director Jon Favreau has been a godsend to the modern-day family film. With 2003's "Elf
"already a cinematic Christmas stapleand now "Zathura," he has made two consecutive motion pictures that harkens back to the days of classic movies made for all audiences, along the lines of, say, 1982's "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial" and 1985's "The Goonies." Nowadays, the traditional "family feature" is code for "kid flick," because the majority of such releases pander to only one audience segment. There are occasions when this isn't the case, but most of those are of the animated variety (i.e. 2001's "Shrek
" and 2004's "The Incredibles
"). What Favreau has managed to do with these live-action efforts is tell his stories in smart, whimsical ways, with characters that are based within the real world even when what surrounds them is fantasy.
Not so much a sequel to 1995's "Jumanji" as a companion piece, "Zathura" is based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg about a presumably ordinary old board game that acts a portal to some very real adventures and dangers. The players are 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and 6-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo), bickering brothers whose recently divorced father leaves them at home while he runs out to his work office for a few minutes. While exploring the basement, Danny discovers the "Zathura" game, dusts it off, and begins to play. The second he does, he and Walter are immersed within the game, their house and all of its contents transported to space. Forced to finish the game before they will be sent back home, they must dodge a series of obstaclesa meteor shower, a malfunctioning robot, nasty dinosaur-like aliens, etc.as they slowly make their way around the board. Joining their plight is aloof teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) and an astronaut (Dax Shepard) sent to them by way of a game card who just might be their savior in reaching the finish line in one piece.
"Zathura" isn't sugarcoated, it doesn't treat the story or human characters with Disney-style sentimentality, and there isn't a single fart or burp joke to be had. No, the film is better than that, and director Jon Favreau and screenwriters David Koepp (2005's "War of the Worlds
") and John Kamps do everything in their power to construct an ageless entertainment that concentrates on imagination and valuable, unforced life lessons. With each new turn of the game key, push of the "go" button, and ding announcing the arrival of the next instruction card, there is a real excitement in seeing what will happen next. Visual effects are first-rate, creatively used to bring to life the fantastical events and plentiful threats mounting around Walter and Danny. In doing so, the film grows darkly tense on occasion, as when Danny must recapture the stolen game board from a gang of alien zorgons without being seen, but is no more extreme than one of the early "Harry Potter
" movies and is all in good fun.
Even before the fantasy element of the plot takes hold, "Zathura" wraps the viewer up from the first scene by presenting a feuding relationship between brothers that gets it just right, complete with some brief coarse language for a PG-rating. When Danny calls Walter a "dick" in the first minutes, there were light, but audible, gasps that came from some parents in the audience. This reaction, I suspect, was not as much because they found it inappropriate as it was because they couldn't believe a "family movie" would have the courage to use "dick," "ass," and "beyotch." What viewers and watered-down Hollywood studios seem to forget is that most kids do say these words on occasion. Kudos to director Jon Favreau for having the audacity to aim for authenticity over dishonesty, even at the risk of upsetting a handful of delusional, close-minded parents.
There is also a wisdom in the way Favreau conveys some worthwhile morals without shoving them down the viewer's throat. As the game progresses and the stakes are raised, Walter and Danny must learn to work together as a unit. In doing so, they come to value their relationship as not only siblings, but as friends, and there is a surprising pathos in the way they grow as characters while doing this. Portraying Walter and Danny are Josh Hutcherson (2005's transcendent "Little Manhattan
") and Jonah Bobo (2004's "Around the Bend"), two young stars in the making who couldn't be better. Their enthusiasm and charisma are infectious, the kind of unlikely heroes who deserve being rooted for.
Dax Shepard (2004's "Without a Paddle
") and Kristen Stewart (2004's "Catch That Kid
") appealingly round out the four leads, with Shepard especially effective as the mystery astronaut who helps them and Stewart getting one of the shrewdest one-liners as she hilariously references 2003's stark indie drama, "Thirteen
." It's a joke that will be lost upon 98% of the audience, but only proves how much more expansive the target audience is than the typical family movie. In wraparound sequences that are just as good as the fantasy section between them, Tim Robbins (2003's "Mystic River
") makes a lasting imprint with only ten minutes of screen time as the dad.
"Zathura" is a film experience to treasure, creative and captivating in equal measures. It comes close to being even better than that, but admittedly muddles itself with a revelation during the climax that either doesn't make much sense or hasn't been explained well enough to fill in the plot holes it leaves behind. And, as beautifully handled as Walter and Danny are, there could have been a little more emotion as they, in essence, fight for their lives. Never once do they shed a tear from fright, which even in a fantasy setting isn't plausible. An adult would freak out if faced with what they do, and yet these youngsters stay fairly calm throughout. These two criticisms aside, the film is a veritable joy to behold. A motion picture that works on multiple levels, in multiple genres, and never dumbs itself down, it is difficult to imagine any person of any age going to see "Zathura" and not being swept away in the sheer spectacle of it all.