Whereas Joe Johnston’s Jumanji was defined by belligerent special effects of both the computer-animated (vicious monkeys, charging rhinos) and human (a hyperactive Robin Williams) variety, Jon Favreau’s Zathura—a similar board game-come-to-life fairy tale based on a Chris Van Allsburg book—mercifully relies only on the former. Which isn’t to say that this bludgeoning, episodic sci-fi saga isn’t still swarming with cacophonous explosions and creatures. Rather, it’s simply that, without any marquee personalities (save for a brief turn by a reserved Tim Robbins) around to devour the scenery, the film makes time amid its meteor showers and alien attacks to root itself in the small-scale drama between Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and younger brother Danny (Jonah Bobo), two boys struggling to come to terms with their parents’ divorce. Left alone on a Saturday afternoon by their dad (Robbins), Walter and Danny find themselves engulfed in a cosmic adventure when Danny begins playing the titular board game, a rickety creation of wind-up keys, spinning number counters, and mechanized playing pieces that magically launches their house into the atmosphere. Delivering a cornucopia of outer space sights designed with retro ‘50s-era style (including a Forbidden Planet-ish defective robot), Zathura functions much like its board game namesake, its forward motion a step-by-step progression through predictably scheduled frantic encounters with extraterrestrials and a wayward astronaut (Dax Shepard). Favreau balances astonishing spectacle with the push-pull argumentativeness of his pint-sized protagonists, and the early earthbound bickering between the kids—facilitated by the filmmaker’s assured direction and his stars’ convincing rapport—has a contentious credibility. Unfortunately, beholden to set-piece extravagance above all else, the film quickly finds itself adrift in turgid CG exhibitionism. The appeal of Van Allsburg’s story hinges on exploiting the childhood fantasy of “entering” a board game, and yet by succumbing to prosaic literal visualizations of out-of-this-world fantasticalities, Favreau’s cinematic adaptation devolves into a familiar, unimaginative real-life cartoon. And thus aside from Walter and Danny’s provocatively dressed, hot-to-trot older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart, successfully obliterating her Panic Room tomboyishness), Zathura ultimately comes across as little more than the template for an eventual kiddie-friendly theme park attraction.
- Jon Favreau
- David Koepp, John Kamps
- Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins, Frank Oz
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