Release Date: November 11, 2005
Rating: PG (fantasy action and peril, language)
Run Time: 1 hr. 35 min.
Director: Jon Favreau
Actors: Tim Robbins, Kristen Stewart, Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, Dax Shepard
It must be truly difficult to make an excellent family movie. Not only do the filmmakers need to appeal to the fickle tastes of children, but they must include something that holds adults' attention as well. In this way “Zathura” falls short of the ideal family film; Ten-year-old boys will likely love it, whereas their parents will be checking their watches. They will wonder what in the world is tying all the random sequences of destruction together, besides a magic board game with an unpronounceable name.
Divorced Dad (Tim Robbins) seems to have the universal “divorced dad in a movie” problems: how to balance work responsibilities with caring for his kids. After playing catch with his bickering sons, six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson), he settles down to work at in his home office. When his feuding sons’ argument spills (literally) into his office, and damages some of his work, he must leave them in the care of their self-absorbed teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart).
After more fighting Danny locks Jonah in the creepy basement of their father’s old house and settles down to watch TV. While trying to find an alternate route back upstairs, Danny finds a retro looking board game, Zathura: A Space Adventure, brings it upstairs, and begs his older brother to play. Of course Walter refuses and Danny begins to play the game on his own. Soon meteors begin to rip through the house and the boys discover that their house, with them inside, is floating through space. The boys quickly realize the game is controlling their fate and their best option for getting themselves and their house back to earth is to continue playing. Lot’s more arguing and screaming at one another ensues.
Sound familiar? “Zathura” is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also penned "Jumanji," which was made into a movie ten years ago. In “Jumanji” two children also find themselves playing a jungle themed game that comes to life around them. But where "Zathura" could have expanded on the “kids-lost-in-a-game” formula, it only feels like “Jumanji” in space rather than its own movie. Where “Jumanji” had the semblance of a plot that tied together the story and the rampaging jungle beasts tearing up a small New Hampshire town, the plot in “Zathura” does not really kick in until the movie is two-thirds over. And while “Jumanji” boasts the impressive acting talents of Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Bebe Neuwirth, and Kirsten Dunst, to name a few, “Zathura” has only one recognizable acting heavyweight, and he is only on-screen for a few minutes of the movie.
The kids’ characters are largely stereotypical, and could be lifted from any number of mediocre children's movies: The selfish teenage sister who is clueless about her surroundings. The older brother who is a bit of brute. The younger misunderstood brother who just wants love and attention. Too many scenes of the brothers bickering, fighting, arguing or out-and-out screaming at one another detract from what little character growth they eventually achieve.
With legendary special effects wizard Stan Winston on board, “Zathura” is a visually stunning film with an effective “retro” science fiction feel. As stars, comets and space rock drift by the floating house, one can almost suspend belief in the physics that make such things impossible. The film also creates edge-of-your-seat suspense, as the kids struggle to figure out their situation and avoid the incessant dangers thereof. Unfortunately this action does little to move the story forward. As the boys solve one problem after another, the viewer is left to wonder what random scary thing is going to show up and threaten them next. After a while it just becomes too predictable.
Of course, it’s probably not giving away anything to say that everything works out in the end. Both boys learn their lessons. Cheating is bad, and catches up with you. Siblings should love one another and work together rather than bicker. All vaguely wholesome moral values are learned as the boys dodge meteors, laser blasts and mean-looking beasties.
As a big fan of director Jon Favreau’s work, both as a director and actor, I really wanted to like this movie. His film “Elf” from two years ago was certainly a gem: a great family film that kids love but is also funny for adults as well. Judged this way, "Zathura" misses the mark. Kids will probably enjoy the mindless action, but adults looking for an interesting story or characters will be disappointed.
AUDIENCE: Generally family, but perhaps too intense for children under age nine.
- Drugs/Alcohol: None.
- Language: Three or four vulgar words. In one early scene, Danny is rebuked by his father for using bad language.
- Sex: None. Some may find one of Lisa’s outfits a bit skimpy.
- Violence: Children's lives threatened throughout most of the film. A killer robot rampages through the house chasing one of the boys. Alien spaceships shoot up the house with the kids inside. The same scary lizard-like aliens who “eat meat” (i.e. people) enter the house and stalk the hiding children. Lots of mayhem, explosions and sci-fi style violence.