Hippo Manchester
November 17, 2005

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Film: Zathura (PG)

Two brothers must find a way to work together to outplay a space adventure game and return to Earth in Zathura, a movie based on yet another Chris Van Allsburg book and directed by Jon Favreau.

I never saw Jumanji in its entirety, due in part to the starring role of Robin Williams and in part because it came out in the time between my own childhood and my professional need to see all movies. From the pieces I have seen of it, it looks rather awful, what with sentimentality and CGI taking precedence over the story. Then there was last year’s Polar Express, that lump of sugariness that had me in diabetic shock for the way its 3-D animation and over-the-top Christmas-ness smothered any of the original wonder created by Van Allsburg’s drawings.

Zathura therefore stands alone in the field of Van Allsburg adaptations that doesn’t make you retroactively dislike the source material. Once Tim Robbins as the divorced dad trying his hardest exits the picture, the whole learning-of-lessons, magic-of-childhood mélange of family-movie psychobabble vanishes and an actual story about actual children and their adventures takes shape.

Walter (Josh Hutcherson), 10, and Danny (Jonah Bobo), 6, are left home in the disinterested care of their teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart). Danny ends up in the basement where he finds a dusty Atomic-Age-looking game called Zathura. Though Walter wants nothing to do with Danny, on whom he stamps that horrible label “babyish,” Danny wants to play the game. He pulls the lever, gets the counter spinning and pushes the button. A card pops out warning of meteors. Walter shoos Danny away, not wanting to take a turn until whomp the living room is pelted with meteors.

A quick examination leads to the discovery that not only is the house under assault by meteors, it is now dislodged from its suburban surroundings and floating through a meteor field. Walter quickly surmises that the only way to get back to Earth is to play the game until the end.

Of course each turn brings new trials (including the brief freezing of their sister) and the boys realize that not only must they both play the game but they must work together — no easy task for a 10-year-old who thinks his little brother ruins everything and a 6-year-old who feels perpetually in second place.

About halfway through the adventure, Dax Shepard shows up as a stranded astronaut. Most amazing about his character is the way he quickly integrates to the children’s world without talking down to them or seeming ridiculous (ahem, Robin Williams).

Danny ultimately wants his big brother’s respect — what makes the movie such an unexpected treat is that the script respects him and his brother as well. They are allowed to fight and say hurtful things to each other, as siblings do. They are allowed to be confused and angry and approach the events that unfold not as faultless fantasy children nor as impossible brats but with a genuine kidness — a realistic mixture of smarts, immaturity, concern for each other and snottiness.

Lest you think Zathura is all about sharing and growing, the boys get to fight their way through a pretty nifty adventure. In addition to a friendly astronaut, they are also visited by not-so-friendly lizard people called Zorgons and a defective robot. Their spaceship home floats through an assortment of troubling situations (such as the powerful gravity field of a star). The excitement of these exploits plays a key role in the movie and the dangers themselves (being eaten by a Zorgon, for example) trump any showiness of special effects every time.

The live-action nature of Zathura might put it beyond the attention abilities of younger children but for kids old enough to get excited by a visit to space, Zathura offers them an engrossing and only occasionally sweet adventure.