Zathura (DVD)

Looks like you got a serious Zorgon problem.

When Chris Van Allsburg concluded his book Jumanji, he wrapped it up with a hint of continued adventures. He later paid off that idea, bringing back the reality-altering board game, by putting it in the hands two new protagonists and placing the whole thing in a far-out new setting.

Hollywood followed this pattern, in a way. The film Jumanji featured non-stop CGI animals and mass destruction. This follow-up, advertised not as a sequel but “from the world of Jumanji,” introduces new characters, a new game, and dozens of outer space thrills, all told with minimal CGI and mostly practical special effects. But is there enough excitement here for viewers to make it all the way to Zathura?

While spending the weekend with their dad, brothers Walter (Josh Hutcherson, Little Manhattan) and Danny (Jonah Bobo, Around the Bend) are bored, with nothing to do but watch TV, bicker with each other, and compete for attention from their dad (Tim Robbins, War of the Worlds). Meanwhile, older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart, Panic Room, Catch That Kid) is upstairs, sleeping the day away.

Down in the basement of dad’s antique fixer-upper house, Danny discovers an old board game called Zathura, with mechanical moving parts. When he starts playing, some strange things start happening, like the living room being pelted by meteors, Lisa getting cryogenically frozen, and the entire house floating through outer space. Now, the two young brothers have to learn to work together while rescuing a wandering astronaut (Dax Shepard, Without a Paddle), running from a malfunctioning robot, or fighting off cannibalistic lizard space pirates. The only way home? Beat the game.

Zathura is not really science fiction; it’s more about science fiction. Director John Favreau (Elf) uses the film to throw as many classic sci-fi images at the screen as he can. There are the reptilian aliens, the rampaging robot, the flying jetpack, the meteor shower, the “flying too close to the sun” bit, and explosions galore. We only get a minimalist glimpse of what makes the bad guys tick; the scaly green guys are only here to menace our heroes at the right times. The same goes for the robot, which is less of a character and more of an obstacle the boys have to overcome. We’re not to worry about how everyone in the house is able to breathe in space or where their gravity is coming from. Instead, we’re just supposed to point at the screen and say “Look, spaceships!” at the appropriate moments.

As any Dinner for Five viewer can tell you, Favreau is a total movie geek, seen here with his decision to use as few computer effects in Zathura as possible. Nostalgia is the real name of the game, as Favreau attempts to pay homage to the glory days of fellows like Spielberg and Lucas and all the adolescent fantasy/adventure films of the late ’70s and early ’80s. As such, the robots and aliens here arrive courtesy of special effects maestro Stan Winston. Almost all the craziness in the film was captured in front of a camera, courtesy of puppetry, models, and some creative costuming. Whether this will make a difference to you depends how much of an “eye” you have for effects. Some people can tell a clear difference between the computer stuff and the “real” effects. Others, meanwhile, won’t care as long as they get to see monsters and spaceships.

Yes, it’s an effects-driven film, but there’s a story here, too. The script, thankfully, doesn’t have Jumanji’s complicated back story, with its missing children and anachronistic running shoes. Writers David Koepp (Jurassic Park) and John Kamps (The Borrowers) have narrowed the plot down to two brothers who have to learn to get along when facing a crisis. Josh Hutcherson plays the more active of the two, ready to leap into action whenever danger strikes. As the younger brother, Jonah Bobo perhaps spends a little too much of the film whining, and some less patient viewers might grow weary of his voice after a while. Does that mean the kid is a bad actor? Hardly. Bobo’s real skill is in his facial expressions. He can say more with a look than 20 pages of exposition could ever cover. Kristen Stewart, looking completely different here than she did in Panic Room, is absent for the middle part of the film, but she brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm to her part once she thaws out. Dax Shepard balances humor with some pseudo-action hero moments, while Tim Robbins makes his exasperation with the two boys believable.

The picture quality here is mostly good, making the most of the house’s earth tones. Unfortunately, some dark scenes near the end of the film show some blue splotches where there should be deep, rich blacks. That’s kind of a disappointment for such a recently-made movie. Likewise, the 5.1 sound is good, but with all the action and destruction, I wonder if it couldn’t be more immersive than it is.

Kicking off the extras is a commentary with Favreau and producer Peter Billingsley—that’s right, the same Peter Billingsley from A Christmas Story. It’s a good one, with reminisces on unused early concept ideas, anecdotes from the set, and how the effects were created on the set. For continued looks at the various effects, five of the seven featurettes emphasize how they were all created, covering everything from puppetry, makeup, set design, props, and more. Another featurette looks at the casting process, with an emphasis on the young actors. The disc is rounded out with a nice interview with Van Allsburg, who talks about his start in the publishing game, his inspiration for Jumanji and Zathura, and his thoughts on how Hollywood has treated his work.

It’s a simple story, and there’s a lot of excitement for the younger viewers, but is it too simple? The various crises thrown at the boys really have no rhyme or reason except to mess with them. There’s no real villain, there’s no real science, and the big twist at the end appears to come out of nowhere—although the commentary reveals where it’s hinted at. There’s some “roller coaster ride” fun here, but there’s “cotton candy” substance to go along with it.

There are some sci-fi fans out there who love to label various films and books under numerous categories and subcategories. This group will have a tough time with Zathura, which plays around with all the toys of the genre, constantly throwing new elements and surprises at the audience. For some B-movie thrills, though, it’s a light but still fun romp through space.

The Verdict

Not guilty, as long as you turn off your brain before watching.

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