ZATHURA is a big concept, but not an original one. It is, in point of fact, pretty much a rehashing of a much better film, JUMANJI, which was also based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg. It’s not fair to say that ZATHURA’s biggest failing is that it doesn’t have Robin Williams to liven things up. I’m not sure it would have helped.
The brothers at the center of the fantasy adventure are terrific. Jonah Bobo as Danny, the six-year-old younger brother who is forever trying to get attention, even if it means cheating or being annoying is suitably irksome and winsome at the same time. Josh Hutcherson as Walter, the older by four years who is so annoyed with his sibling that any way of needling him, big or small, is the focus of his existence, has an edge that smacks of a real sibling rivalry in his bored hostility . As for older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), she spends most of the film doing what teenagers do best, sleeping or crabbing at the rest of her family for existing on the same planet that she inhabits. That’s about to change. As they wait for their mother to pick them up for her part of the joint custody agreement with their father (Tim Robbins), a round of teasing gone wrong leads Danny to the ominous bowels of the basement where he discovers what looks like a vintage 1950s board game, the eponymous Zathura. He’s intrigued, but the box is very specific that the game requires two players to keep the spaceships zipping around the galaxy as they race to see who can get to Zathura first. Undeterred by Walter’s complete indifference, Danny begins to play, turning the key on the side of the board and taking the card that pops up, the one that warns them to take cover because a meteor shower is about to begin. And the card isn’t speaking fictionally. The living room is suddenly awash in semi-molten meteor whooshing through ceilings, floors, and even appliances like, well, semi-molten meteors.
Almost every turn, and they must be taken in order, brings a new adventure. Some, like being promoted to a fleet admiral, results in nothing, others, like a malfunctioning robot or saving a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard, stalwart and snarky, a dynamite combination), have more ominous qualities, each exploited in great detail. Oh, and the tidy lawn and suburban street where their house used to be has been replaced by outer space, where said house drifts along full or wild robots, hungry astronauts, and pursued by who knows what.
Director Jon Favreau, whose work in ELF is nothing short of divine, here is all too mortal. His film plods along, as though having spent a great deal of money on special effects, holding the camera on them without moving for a really, really, really long time would be the best route to getting the most out of that expenditure. It has, alas, the opposite effect. Also hindering the magic is some choppy editing that has a jarring “where did that come from” effect. If that weren’t bad enough, the message of the piece, that brothers should be team and love each other, is hammered home with a relentlessness of a prolonged shower of semi-molten meteors. You just want to yell “Enough already, I get it.”
ZATHURA far from being a wondrous flight of fancy is grounded by its flirtation with tedium. Younger kids might enjoy the whiz-bang special effects, but there’s only so much alien attacks and shooting stars can cover, and for most of us, it’s just not enough.