Where was Chris Van Allsburg when I was growing up? Check that. Where the hell was I? Not in a library apparently and it’s a shame that I missed out on many of Allsburg’s imaginative illustrated adventures. Age doesn’t dim the imagination, but strengthen it. Toss in a Peter Pan complex and a search for the inner child – Allsburg’s work still enlivens the senses and should be taken to new heights when turned over the magic machine in Hollywood. Joe Johnston brought a fun, spirited direction to Jumanji. Robert Zemeckis and animators put years into the glorious Polar Express which is about to enter its first year as a perennial holiday classic. Zathura, although not being advertised, was Allsburg’s sequel to Jumanji (two decades by book; one by film). As translations to the big screen go, it confirms the idea that the imagination knows no boundaries. And it would have been nice to find one of those imaginations to make the movie.Walter (Josh Hutcherson) is hardly fond of his little brother, Danny (Jonah Bobo). He thinks he hogs the time with dad (Tim Robbins) during their weekly visits and has a reputation to cheat at whatever game they may be playing. Both kids are aggravating enough around each other to make one rethink the child abuse laws, but dad does his patient best to give his boys equal time. When he’s off for a business meeting, he leaves them in the care of older sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart), who is busy sleeping away the afternoon for a big night out. That’s when Danny, forced down to the basement in his favorite hiding spot, discovers a dusty old game which sounds like the name of a lost Zappa child.
Anyone who has read or seen Jumanji knows that this game is more than just inanimate pieces and lucky rolls. When you get acard that says “Meteor shower – Take evasive action” you better damn well follow it. Walter & Danny are immediately thrust into an effort to finish the game while their house has launched into the depths of space towards the objective planet. Fending off a malfunctioning robot and a nasty breed of meat-eaters known as the Gorgons, the two brothers get some help from a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard) and fight each other every step of the way.
Each game card is a set-piece in waiting. Not so much clues, but just another few spaces on the board towards reaching Zathura. What’s disappointing is that each successive sequence sends the movie backwards; decreasing the level of excitement instead of revving us up for an even more challenging dilemma. It ends up lumbering around from each adventure in much the same way that The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did earlier this year; cool ideas but not much in the way of execution all leading up to a lackluster finale involving Danny sneaking around the alien ship to recover the game and a late twist which you can sense coming but makes zero (minus one) sense in the whole time & space calculation and less in behavioral science.
What is especially impressive here are the various special effects; utilized in an old-school practical kind of ILM magic. The robot and the Gorgons are physical instead of the computer imagery were accustomed to and its all part of the Flash Gordon-esque rocketship and space story design from early 20th century literature. It’s the one portion of Zathura that harbors the sort of gee-whiz wonder that Favreau wanted to convey. Shepard (looking like Zach Braff’s brother) also turns in a nice performance as the rescued astronaut trying to keep control of the brothers and their situation. Considering that Shepard is a former cast member of Punk’d, it’s a testament to his work as the most mature in the film – or a telling statement as to how badly you want to send the boys to a room corner and then throw away the room.Favreau’s direction is too sluggish here to mount a serious attempt for a lasting children’s classic and that’s a shame. Elf wasn’t a great film (it wasn’t even a good film) but most adults & children beyond myself really took to it. Maybe they will to Zathura too, although I suspect that the adults this time will be losing watch of the kids as their eyes get heavier past the hour mark. It would be interesting to get a classroom of kids together and have someone set up this story for them and see where they would take it. How wild could they run with it and would a background in films like Star Wars, Explorers and even Jumanji guide them in how to craft an adventure that leaves you wanting more in terms of a next journey and not just what was missing from the previous one?