Pay attention, Disney: This is how you do a family film right. Neither pandering nor dull, Zathura plays exactly like a no-limits replica of the kind of space adventure that imaginative kids left to their own devices might enact. Assuming there's no Xbox to distract them, naturally.
Loosely based on Chris Van Allsburg's sequel to Jumanji, the movie features all new characters and lacks a show-off like Robin Williams taking the focus away from where it should be -- on the kids. Tim Robbins makes an appearance as "the Dad" at the very beginning, but he must be removed from the house for the story to really begin. The only other grown-up is Dax Shepard, who's at his most subdued, playing a disgruntled astronaut.
Our heroes are rival brothers Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson). Walter, who's approaching adolescence and determined to act older, is fiercely competitive, good at sports and would rather watch ESPN than SpongeBob. Danny still loves toys and board games and has a vivid imagination, but to keep up with his brother, he has also learned how to cheat to win. It's Danny who first discovers the retro-antique game Zathura in the basement ; it's a shiny board game made of tin, with a clockwork mechanism that moves the pieces and dispenses cards. Walter wants no part of it, but once Danny starts, outer space comes vividly to life in the form of a meteor shower, followed by the discovery that the house itself is now floating in space, in orbit around a Saturn-like planet. The game demands two players, and it must be completed in order to return home.
But that's no easy task, as each turn brings new hazards, from meteors to malfunctioning robots to carnivorous reptilians called Zorgons. In Jumanji, taking a new turn eliminated the previous turn's danger in favor of a newer one, but not so here -- Zathura favors a cumulative effect, which keeps tension building. Because even though you know that winning the game will make everything fine again, the dangers in between are quite nasty. And if the brothers are to cooperate and finish, they have to get over their petty differences and work as a team.
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You know it's a good sign for a children's film when Peter Billingsley is listed as a producer. Star of one of the greatest family films ever, A Christmas Story, he seems determined to find a similar tone in his work with director Jon Favreau, here and in Elf. Danny and Walter are not sugar-coated, nostalgia-tinged idealized kids-as-remembered-by-adults; they're often quite mean, unabashedly calling one another "dick," and Walter's first impulse when he obtains his own personal robot is to say, "Get me a juice box, beeyotch!" (Perhaps the best line of dialogue in any movie this year.)
Favreau and screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps actually manage to sneak in a couple of R-rated references that will go way over most kids' heads. Lamenting Dad's mistrust, the boys' teenage sister (Catch That Kid's Kristen Stewart) complains that they never should have rented the movie Thirteen. And Danny has a pet gerbil named Richard -- surely no coincidence, given a certain famous urban legend about the extracurricular activities of Mr. Gere.
Some older viewers might complain that the laws of physics on display here are ever-elastic. Though it's now floating in space, the house maintains its flow of gas, water and electricity; and outer space now seems to be at a reasonable temperature with breathable air (Shepard wears a spacesuit at first, but every character walks outside on the porch with impunity). Late in the game, an odd time-travel notion is presented that doesn't seem to make sense within normal story parameters of such things, but one has to accept that this is essentially a child's game of make-believe, where the rules are often improvised along the way. Once you acknowledge that a board game can generate a parallel universe centering on a single house, the rest is mostly easy. If you can buy it, you'll have a blast.