Jumanji - Take Two
I really enjoyed "Jumanji" when it came out because it was imaginative; as such I also like "Zathura" as it is just as imaginative. It's not really a surprise as both movies were adapted from books written by author Chris Van Allsburg and both feature children playing a board game which comes to life. But "Zathura" has something which "Jumanji" hasn't and that is two believable characters, the way young brothers Walter and Danny fight with each other is spot on. It means than rather just being two characters and all about the events which happen their relationship is part of the journey and so we have a more rounded movie, by no means a perfect one as it drags on a bit but one which is imaginative and entertaining.
Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson - Little Manhattan) are typical brothers, they don't get on with Walter seeing the slightly younger Danny as a little pest. But when Danny discovers an old mechanical board came called "Zathura" that all changes because when Danny starts playing strange things happen as the house not only gets pelted by meteors but it ends up floating in space. As each takes their turn more strange things happen, their sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart - Fierce People) gets frozen, they rescue an astronaut (Dax Shepard) and have to deal with aliens and angry robots. But they learn that they need to work together to try and complete the game in the hope things will return to how they were.
There is a sad irony to "Zathura" because Allsburg's writing captures brilliantly the way children use to play. This adventure which Walter and Danny go on feels like something I would have thought up as a kid, on every roll of a dice this tale evolves with something more outrageous as robots appear, you reprogram them and then they take on aliens. It has that ever changing world where real life rules do not constrain what can happen and only the power of your imagination can limit things. But the sad irony is that I bet children who watch "Zathura" will be entertained by what they see but thanks to the world of pure visual stimulus return to their games machines rather than imagining something as creative as this.
But whilst there is this sad irony what Allsburg writes and director Jon Favreau delivers is a wonderful children's adventure. And for the first half it whips along at the perfect pace going from one imaginative encounter to the next as the brothers play the game and experience what ever appears on the card, be it aliens, robots or their sister going into frozen sleep. It does get a bit drawn out at the start of the second half where the games falls into the wrong hands and they have to rescue it but then you get a brilliantly imaginative ending to compensate this momentary lack of momentum.
Now part of why "Zathura" ends up being so good is that the characters are more than just pawns in an adventure. The way Walter and Danny interact, argue and get in trouble is spot on as Walter tries to act all hard as a big brother, too grown up to play with Danny who is a bit of a pest to him. And then there is also older sister Lisa who sees her younger brothers as both intolerable pests, self centred in that she only wants to do her thing. These are real characters and the journey as they play the game also takes them on a journey of how they relate to each other making "Zathura" more than just an imaginative visual treat. And as such credit must go to Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart for making the characters feel real.
Of course with "Zathura" being about the game and the adventures it is also a very visual movie with some solid special effects. Scenes of the house flying through space, being hit by a meteor storm and slowly falling to bits are great, perfect for fuelling your imagination. And the various trouble they encounter be it the robot or the Zorgon's are just as good, scary but not so scary to frighten younger audiences. Even the actual mechanical board game is a visual treat with it's little space ships which chug along.
What this all boils down to is that "Zathura" is a fun children's movie fuelled by imagination, special effects and real characters. It does drag on a bit too long but if it inspires a few kids to use their imagination and make up adventures rather than return to their games console then it will have done a wonderful job.