U.S. Release Date: November 11, 2005
Distributor: Sony / Columbia
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: David Koepp
Producer: Michael De Luca, Ted Field (executive)
Composer: John Debney
Cast: Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins
Running Time: 1 hour and 53 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG (fantasy action and peril, and some language)

Board Game Fantasy is Candy-Coated Fun
by Scott Holleran

Coming off Robert Zemeckis' successful adaptation of his The Polar Express and ten years after Joe Johnston brought his Jumanji to the screen, children's writer Chris Van Allsburg scores three for three with Jon Favreau's charming take on his Zathura. The theme is no deeper than "be nice to your little brother," but this board game fantasy is as much fun as a box of Cracker Jack.

The setting is an old Craftsman style house, where a couple of bickering brothers compete for their single father's (Tim Robbins) attention. Older Walter (Josh Hutcherson) plays sports, and he's a bit of a show-off, while younger Danny (Jonah Bobo, and how's that for a name?) merely possesses an imagination, not an ability to catch baseballs, a deadly combination. Dad—a tender turn by Robbins—is equitable to both until their spat spills onto his work, and he has to head into the office to repair the damage. Before he does, Dad threatens to wake teenaged sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart, sufficiently spaced out), leaving the boys to plead for mercy. The stage is set for an afternoon of mischief.

Anyone expecting more than that—say, obnoxious, video game effects, pop-cult jokes and body fluids—had better skip this stuff because it's all sling shots, frogs and astronauts, and Chicago improvisational trouper Favreau (Elf) knows how to have a boys-only good time with a heavily Midwestern cast and writers who dare to be normal. Good story, good pace, good effects add up to the year's best movie for kids.

The blast lasts the whole time, from the moment the squirt finds an old board game, with rusty metal movers and cards that pop out, under the basement steps and the house is ripped from its roots amid a meteor shower until it's safe to say game over. Not as sweet as Jumanji, which is a smarter, better movie, Zathura promises a rainy day adventure, nothing else.

Van Allsburg's story, adapted by writers David Koepp and John Kamps, understands how words can hurt, and how dumbwaiters and other household nooks and crannies can serve as blank slates for a child's imagination, and Favreau gets a lot of outer space mileage out of Van Allsburg's 32-page book. One turn leads to another, with mini-morality lessons no deeper than a dime building upon a toy chest filled with robots, slimy creatures and a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard, complete with a sci-fi name), who sticks around long enough to make the boys' journey more interesting, if not exactly meaningful.

Favreau has a good sense of comedy and action, stubbornly refusing to ruin his movie with too much volume and too many cuts, though a pat ending—with inabilities magically mastered—makes the Cracker Jack prize a bit chintzy. Still, Zathura moves ahead five spaces for neatness and simplicity—and for letting kids be kids, not adult-neuroses zombies—that makes this rainy day game a true winner.

Buy on DVD
DVD Notes
On DVD, Zathura is a keeper. Features are informative, the audio commentary with director Jon Favreau and co-producer Peter Billingsley is entertaining and the whole production is almost as good as the movie.

All the features—seven in total—could have been integrated into one piece. As it is, breakout bits are held to the usual under-15 minute rule for DVD features. Standouts include a profile of Chris Van Allsburg that's more in-depth than the one on The Polar Express DVD and interesting pieces on making the movie and the creation and use of miniatures.

What's clear is that unpretentious Jon Favreau, who is not afraid to praise smaller production houses, is an independent moviemaker. He worked on this picture with men who know how to explain what they do in clear terms. With talk of gears, hydraulics and pixels, their instructions are useful, making this movie's DVD a technology geek's dream that, like Zathura, knows how to press play.

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