‘Zathura’ a well-rounded, feel-good family film

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Zathura
Columbia Pictures, 2005
Starring Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart
Directed by Jon Favreau
Written by David Koepp and John Kamps
Rated PG, 113 min.
Adventure/family/ sci-fi

“Zathura” is the exact same story as the 1995 “Jumanji.” The only differences are that “Zathura” features a space-themed board game that becomes real rather than a jungle-themed board game, and “Zathura” keeps it all in the house, whereas the madness in “Jumanji” spilled over into the surrounding town. This small change improved the formula immensely, and resulted in a much more focused story than “Jumanji”.

All the other necessary elements for a good film are there too, and “Zathura” winds up being an excellent ride. “Zathura’s” primary characters are brothers Danny (Jonah Bobo, “Strangers with Candy”) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson, “Kicking and Screaming”), 6 and 10 years old. Danny and Walter fight constantly, and their sibling rivalry is beautifully drawn. It’s a realistic balance of legitimate complaints and deliberate button-pushing, and neither brother emerges as the bad guy. As the brothers play the enchanted board game and their house becomes a space ship, they get a forum in which to address their differences. This emotional throughline is handled masterfully and never becomes smarmy.

As a space adventure, “Zathura” shines as well. The brothers get pelted by meteors about twenty minutes in, and from there on out its non-stop space intensity. There is a feeling of genuine danger, and that’s a rare thing in children’s films. The visuals are absolutely beautiful, fueled by a ’40s-era “Amazing Tales” type of sensibility. The aliens they meet are pure reptilian terror and the space vistas are breathtaking.

“Zathura” also is infused with a healthy dose of comedy, which by and large relies on its characters and their interactions. Sibling rivalry can be very funny if handled correctly, because it is often completely irrational. The writers of “Zathura” exploit this idea wonderfully. It also manages to get pop-culture references right, an almost unheard-of feat in today’s children’s movies. It comes across as the characters making these references for legitimate reasons rather than the filmmakers winking at the audience.

Honorable mention goes to Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”), whose portrayal of the father in the opening minutes of “Zathura” grounds the movie beautifully. He establishes very distinct relationships with each of his three children while introducing the father as a humorous yet overwrought man. Ultimately, Robbins’ portrayal of the harried yet loving paterfamilias serves as an introduction for the film’s protagonists. By meeting this father and seeing how he deals with his kids, viewers gain a deeper understanding of the kids themselves.

I only have two complaints about “Zathura,” although both are things traditionally forgiven in children’s’ movies. The first is the acting of the two leads, Bobo and Hutcherson. While they are capable and never slow the movie down, they ultimately fail to reach all the emotional levels that the script seems to demand of them. This failing is common to most young actors. Secondly, there is a wishing star that passes the house at one point that winds up being a fairly transparent plot device. It seems strange that a space-themed game would have a magical element like a star that grants wishes. This complaint is a trifle, because children’s films generally get a little more leeway in that area than do adult films.

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“Zathura” is a finely-tuned family film that ultimately transcends its genre and works as a charming, character-driven adventure. I recommend it to anyone who’s not too cool to see a children’s’ movie. If you’ve got kids’ to take, all the more reason to go.