Film Review: Zathura

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In 1995, Jumanji, a hair-raising adventure about a couple of kids who find a magical board game which comes to life, was brought to the big screen by Academy Award-winner Joe Johnston (for Raiders of the Lost Ark’s visual effects). The film was based on the Chris Van Allsburg best seller of the same name which had been awarded the Caldecott Medal, an honor bestowed annually upon the best illustrated book for children.

Though that movie made over $100 million at the box office and kickstarted the career of then 13 year-old Kirsten Dunst, it took till 2002 for author Allsburg to publish a follow-up to his fanciful fairy tale. Now, Zathura has been adapted by Hollywood, and the good news is that it is among that rare breed of sequels which actually improves upon its original source material.

Most deserving of any accolades for this unusual feat is actor-turned-director Jon Favreau who proves, here, that his previous hit, the heartwarming Elf, was no fluke. With Spielberg-like execution, he has fashioned a spellbinding, thrill-a-minute roller coaster ride guaranteed to enthrall young and old alike.

At the point of departure, we find Danny, 6, (Jonah Bobo) and Walter, 10, (Josh Hutcherson) locked in some mean-spirited sibling rivalry (venturing into the profane) as they compete for the attention and approval of their recently-divorced father (Tim Robbins) during a weekend visitation. Sadly, the emotionally-distant dad perfunctorily devotes precisely the same amount of playtime to each of his sons, as if fulfilling an obligation.

The mentally pre-occupied workaholic then excuses himself to attend to a job-related obligation, asking daughter Lisa (Kristen Stewart) to babysit. But this is virtually like leaving the boys home alone, as they hate their big sister even more than each other, evidenced by their referring to the self-absorbed teen by the B-word.

With Lisa listening to music upstairs in her bedroom, bored Walter grudgingly agrees to play Zathura, the dusty board game for two which Danny has just found on a shelf in the basement. Instead of Jumanji’s jungle theme, this one’s futuristic board features a Thirties Art Deco design, ala Buck Rogers.

What they soon learn is that their initial spin sets in motion a sequence of events which they must complete the game to undo. At this juncture, the picture plunges headlong the pair into a heart-stopping series of nightmares, as they look out the window and discover that the house is no longer on Earth, but hurtling through outer space.

Each card the boys draw dictates what peril will befall them next, whether a meteor shower, alien life forms, robots, gravity fields, black holes, a stranded astronaut or some other inter-galactic mayhem. While blissfully-unaware Lisa is conveniently frozen in a cryogenic sleep chamber (at least for five moves) these industrious adolescents must figure out how to survive by their wits.

While the plot is primarily action-oriented, Zathura devotes sufficient attention to character development along the way, that there won’t be a dry eye in the house after a satisfying twist which delivers a big lesson about the true  meaning of brotherly love. A practically-perfect family flick, slight spoiled by the presence of a couple of completely unnecessary curse words.

Excellent (4 stars)
Rated PG for mature themes, sensuality, action fantasy, frightening images, peril and profanity.
Running time: 113 minutes
Studio: Columbia Pictures


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