Danny (Jonah Bobo), seven years old, and Walter (Josh Hutcherson), ten, are left in the care of their older sister, Lisa (Kirsten Stewart). Dad (Tim Robbins) asks her to keep an eye on them as he runs to the office to pick up something for an upcoming meeting. Being the teenager she is, she promptly goes back to sleep. Walter wants to watch baseball on TV, avoiding his younger brother. When Danny proves to be too much of a pest, Walter chases him throughout the house. He finds Danny hiding in the old dumb waiter and lowers him into the basement. Danny finds his way to the stairs and notices an old board game hiding between the wooden steps. "Zathura, a Space Adventure for Two Players". Danny excitedly shows the game to Walter who ignores him. Danny opens the box and turns the key on the board, causing a button to pop out. He presses the button. His spaceship is moved mechanically across the board. A card pops out. It reads "Meteor Shower. Take Evasive Action." Danny can't read the card and shows Walter. Walter looks at the card and explains what it means just as meteors begin to destroy the living room. They soon realize that their house is floating in outer space. The only way home? To complete the game.
"Zathura", directed by Jon Favreau ("Elf", "Made", "Swingers"), is based on a Chris Van Allsburg book, the same children's book author behind "Jumanji" and "The Polar Express".
A well-crafted film suitable for the whole family, "Zathura" is a delight.
The story is involving and interesting and effectively brings us into the lives of these children. As Danny and Walter run around the house, getting on each others nerves, they seem entirely realistic; two young boys, stuck inside, bored, on a Saturday afternoon. What else would they do except annoy each other, get into mischief and make various attempts to play together? As soon as they find the game, the story really kicks into gear. They realize that they have to play the game through to the end, to get their house back to its small lot in Pasadena and for everything to return to normal. As they play the game, they realize that they have to work together to overcome the challenges of Zathura.
"Jumanji" had a similar premise, but "Zathura" is a very different film. The first film seemed overflowing with characters and animals. "Zathura" takes a different approach, telling the story of the two brothers and a couple of visitors who help out through the course of the story. Because of this, "Zathura" seems more manageable, more intimate. The first film had Robin Williams' antics, but this new film seems better, more enjoyable, more like a real adventure.
Each card popping out of the machine signals the beginning of a new part of the adventure, a new challenge. Some of these put the two boys in dangerous situations that only strengthen the bond between them, others provide some comic relief. An early card reads "Player enters cryogenic sleep chamber. For next five turns." Lisa (Stewart), still not realizing that the house is floating through space walks into her bathroom, concerned that she will be late for her date, and instantly freezes solid. The two boys don't know what to do, except to keep her safe until that action has expired. Another card reads "Rescue Abandoned Astronaut". At that very moment, an astronaut (Dax Shepard, TV's "Punked") flies by the front door. After they rescue him, he proves particularly useful during the remaining challenges.
When you were a kid, you most likely played games or with toys, imagining they were real and you were actually interacting with them. "Zathura" brilliantly captures this feeling, taking it to a new level. Two little boys who were playing a real board game would probably interact in the same way. If one of the players started imagining something a little scary, the other would either encourage him to keep going, to become stronger, or help him through the challenge. The two brothers do this throughout. As various parts of the house are demolished by a robot, heat seeking aliens, and meteors, they scramble to keep the board game, their ticket home, intact.
Director Jon Favreau does a great job at the helm. From the beautiful house, a million plus dollar Arts and Crafts home that dad (Robbins) says he is fixing up, to the look and feel of the board game, Favreau has a definite and unique style. Much like in "Elf", Favreau likes everything to seem a little retro. In "Zathura", the board game graphics and design appear to have been plucked out of the Fifties. A robot, looking more like something from "Forbidden Planet" than "Star Wars Episode III", makes an appearance. It actually looks like some of the special effects were created the old fashioned way, with models and miniature, rather than excessive CGI, lending the film a charm many parents should appreciate.
Favreau also does a nice job with the actors. The two brothers are great. Funny and entirely believable, they could live in any house on your street. Kirsten Stewart is also very funny as Lisa, the typical teenage girl. And Dax Stewart does a nice job as the slightly charismatic astronaut.
"Zathura" is that rare live action film good for the entire family. Kids will love it and adults will enjoy watching it. A couple of the scenes are probably too scary for some of the youngest children. Children Danny's age, under 7, will probably find the film too scary. But everyone else should have a great time playing "Zathura".