After Jumanji, The Polar Express, and now Zathura: A Space Adventure, I think of Chris Van Allsburg as someone whose mostly inane stories are somehow turned into decent movies. So be it. Their appeal is easy to see: each is based on a nifty, undemanding, cinematic gimmick, and in the case of Jumanji and Zathura, it’s the same gimmick. A group of kids discover a mysterious board game, and before long they’re playing it in real life, having to navigate life-threatening dangers in order to “win” and have the pieces reset to the beginning. Zathura is essentially a sequel — or, depending on your perspective, the same film — and all concerned are better off knowing this before springing for tickets.
A necessity of this gimmick, it seems, is that the plot comes to resemble an amusement park ride more so than a story. Given that the “game” is utterly omnipotent and in complete control, there’s an arbitrariness to the proceedings: nothing the characters do can have any real significance, since they are eternally at the mercy of this supernatural device. There are no rules, and no telling if anything that happens is good, bad or indifferent. For those not content to gape in delight as a modest single family home winds up floating through space, this can get a bit frustrating.
Almost certainly less expensive than Jumanji and much less of an event, Zathura has the leeway to immediately assert itself as a boys’ movie. The protagonists are two squabbling brothers — ten year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and six year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo). The film quickly sets up their believable and somewhat heart-rending rivalry: Walter is at that stage where he Wishes He Never Had a Brother, while Danny looks up to the older boy and just wishes he would be nicer. Obviously, this is headed into predictable territory, with an emphatic reconciliation being inevitable, but you might be surprised how little maudlin sentiment this involves.
In fact, the film’s biggest liability, assuming the plot contrivances are forgiven, is that it doesn’t trust its characters. I was sufficiently intrigued by the dynamic between the two boys (and, intermittently, their sister, played by Kristen Stewart) to begin to anticipate seeing it play out against the backdrop of this fantastical board game. Instead, we’re introduced to the Astronaut, an obnoxious third party played by Dax Shepard. He’s distracting and utterly superfluous; his character has a “clever” resolution, but the objective it accomplishes (to be as vague as possible) has essentially already been taken care of by that point in the movie; it’s redundant. It’s a compliment to the film that I wanted more of its main characters and less stupid marginalia, but what it actually does is problematic.
The upshot of all of this is that the screenplay is, overall, rather potent. This is not surprising considering that one of the screenwriters is Hollywood pro David Koepp, who has a genuine talent for writing layered, believable genre films. Zathura is complete nonsense in many ways — it’s not a very good story by any stretch, and it’s unlikely to make much of an impression on anyone, no matter the age — but in portraying these two kids, their sister, and their dad, it somehow feels right.
Director Jon Favreau (Elf), meanwhile, doesn’t bother with terribly fancy CGI effects, making them nifty and pretty and calling it a day. The aliens who eventually show up look like dudes in costumes, and their starships would be at home on syndicated kids’ tv. This is a good thing. For all of its fundamental inadequacies, Zathura has a personality and a soul. It seems about as good as it could be.