Zathura: A Space Adventure That Never Really Takes Off

Jon Favreau's latest directorial effort, 'Zathura: a Space Adventure' is a well intentioned film with strong special effects and strong performances, but it ultimately fails to captivate its audience's imagination or attention.

'Zathura,' based on a story by prolific author Chris Van Allsburg, uses nearly the exact same premise as 1995's Jumanji. In both stories, children overcome mundane domestic disputes when they begin to play a board game that transports them to another world. In 'Jumanji,' that world is a jungle; in 'Zathura,' it's outer space.

This sounds like great fun, and sometimes it is. The problem is that board games themselves are often boring. You move in a circle around the board, and the excitement is limited to the parameters set by the rule book. You know that winning the game will simply take you back to where you started, unless you get up and walk away. Neither of which make a very interesting story.

Favreau's young actors all give strong performances, although none are compelling enough to save the movie. Jonah Bobo, as younger brother Danny, presented an accurate, if annoying, portrait of a younger sibling always trying to catch up to his older brother. Josh Hutcherson, as the 10 year old Walter, was deliciously mean to his earnest younger brother. Kristen Stewart, as the boys icy teenage sister, gives us a 'Mean Girls' worthy teen-queen.

Similarly, strong special effects piqued this viewer's interest but didn't create the sense of urgency that the movie so pointedly lacked. There was an introductory meteor shower, an uprooted house plummeting through space, cryonic sister freeze, a malfunctioning robot, lizard men. Technically and visually, the film was fun to watch.

So what went wrong? It's difficult to translate a children's picture book into an effective feature length film: the plot is often simply not meaty enough. Yet that doesn't stop Hollywood from trying. With beautiful illustrations and streamlined stories, Van Allsburg's books are a desirable but impractical subject for a feature film. Remember last fall's 'The Polar Express?' Rather than stretch them out beyond their narrative capabilities, Van Allsburg's books seem to be better suited to forms like Dianne Jackson's 1982 'The Snowman,' a beautiful, wordless animated short based on Raymond Briggs' book.

'Zathura' is more successful than 'Polar Express,' but it still falls short of entertaining. Had 'Zathura' been infused with more humor that appealed to both it's young viewers and their parents, it might have stood a fighting chance. Favreau gives his audience a few tantalizing hints of the humor that might have been. For example, when Tim Robbins' put-upon uber-dad questions his daughter's use of the phrase 'hook up,' she scowls and laments that they 'never should have rented 'Thirteen.'' Another funny line that floats right over the heads of the kiddies: the astronaut explains his ravenous hunger by telling the brothers that he's just been squeezed through a time sphincter. A what, now? These comic moments are fairly far between though, and the film suffers as a result.

Favreau's last movie, 'Elf,' was a feel good family movie that worked as a result of its comedy. With its plodding and humor-hungry script, 'Zathura' will probably not appeal to the same audience. Zathura said that he was attracted this script in part because, as a parent, he likes 'stories that offer hope and films that have responsible themes. When you're making a movie for young people, there should be a little aspirin in the applesauce. There should be a nice message at the core.' Favreau would have done better to add a little rum, too: 'Zathura' would have been a lot more fun as a drinking game.

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