It's a cinematic quandary of indecipherable proportions. In 1995, Jumanji was released and thanks to the then novel notion of CGI critters on a rampage (plus Robin Williams in his patented quasi-comic maudlin meltdown mode), the movie became a big time blockbuster. Fast forward to 2004, and Robert Zemeckis, famous for such certified classics as Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the Back to the Future films, released The Polar Express. This creative if creepy computer generated cartoon about a trip to the North Pole produced a mountain of megabucks and gets instantly pegged as a seasonal stalwart. Then, in 2005, Jon Favreau, hot on the heels of his Will Farrell starring vehicle Elf, gave the movie going public Zathura: A Space Adventure. Yet oddly enough, instead of being a trifecta for author Chris Van Allsburg (who wrote the books that all three films were based on), this epic sci-fi adventure about kids in space sort of stalled. It was not a flop, but it didn't come close to matching its predecessor's financial legacy. And it's really too bad. As a film, and as a cinematic statement, Zathura puts both of its filmic kin to shame.
Primary kudos again go to Favreau. While Elf proved his deft hand at light, ephemeral entertainment, Zathura lives on a whole other level. Carefully placing his scenes, one on top of the other, letting his narrative slowly build and begin its connections, he draws us into the world of this broken brood, and sets up standard issues of competitiveness and self-doubt. Some may think that the movie drags a bit at the beginning, but the initial moments between Walter, Danny and their Dad are important. Not just for the emotional payoff later, but for how they give the characters space and purpose. Favreau, working from a sensational script by David Koepp and John Kamps, uses these sequences to cement our sentiments over who the wise ass Walter and the dreamer Danny really are. The fact that he will later challenge, change and super charge these initial personalities gives Zathura a human scope rare in modern movies. Usually, during your average action adventure, the journey is all external. Spaceships roar by and aliens must be defeated. But the biggest confrontation in Favreau's film is the inner voyage, one that leads from hurt feelings and bitter resentment to acceptance and love.
Perfectly cast in their parts as bickering brothers, Jonah Bobo (as Danny) and Josh Hutcherson (as Walter) are faultless. Better than ideal, they're authentic and real. Bobo has big almond eyes that seem to drink in the world around him and channel it through his own inner state of confusion and fear. Hutcherson has to mix self-assured smugness with a still developing sense of security. Their first few scenes together are good, but once the F/X fireworks kick in, these child actors ratchet up their thespian game, easily overshadowing the rest of the cast. It cannot be stressed enough how excellent they really are. They give Zathura a depth and dimension that most child-helmed films lack in post-millennial moviedom. As for the others, Dax Shepard (of Punk'd and Without a Paddle fame) easily wins us over as the very reluctant astronaut. Though his character doesn't get to shine until closer to the end, he adds a genial, gentle humor to the proceedings. Tim Robbins is good as the Dad, and Kristen Stewart, all grown up after playing Jodie Foster's daughter in Panic Room, is fine as the ancillary if necessary teenage daughter, lost in her own world of boys and beauty regiments.
It's to Favreau's favor that even the most minor character feels completely important to the plot. Many of the elements are used as balance, counterweights and observational cues for our primary pair. Danny and Walter's sister is a reminder of home, while Shepard's space case is the true threat of what the game Zathura has to offer. Aside from all the killer robots, extraterrestrial lizard men and interstellar dangers, the key conflict resides within these brothers. In many ways, the sensational action set pieces mirror the many facets of their flawed relationship. Walter must face the angry android, knocking the bullying boy down a notch or two in the arrogance department along the way. The battles with differing planets teach the boys about cooperation and consideration. As the younger, and far more frightened brother, Danny is given the task of challenging the always hungry, meat eating Zorgons, facing what has to be the most terrifying set of interplanetary reptiles a six year old could fathom. Yet it all comes back to the bonds between brothers, the need to discover the importance of family ties before decisions both unchangeable and unbreakable are made.
One final facet of this film that must be applauded out loud is the decision to use as little CGI as possible in the creation of the sci-fi and fantasy elements. Favreau wanted the film to be as authentic as possible, and he believes that too many digitally rendered facets render the visuals false and fake. He's right. This critic has often stated that the over-reliance on CGI turns live action movies into exaggerated cartoons. The examples of good (The Lord of the Rings trilogy) are far outweighed by the awful (Underworld) and the atrocious (Van Helsing). As a result, Zathura is a fantastic throwback experience to the days when physical effects were pushed to the very limits of their viability. The use of miniatures, puppets, on-set pyrotechnics and show stopping props give the narrative heft, adding a sense of spatial authenticity that placing some perfectly drawn element onto the celluloid can never create. The work here is reminiscent of Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) or Joe Dante (Innerspace, Explorers). Though the modern movie eye accustomed to a little ILM character mapping might balk, such an artisan approach to the film's fanciful elements makes this movie unique. It is also the reason Zathura will last longer than anything Jumanji has to offer. Sure, blue screen and forced perspective don't age very well, but they don't have the irritating artificiality of mid-90s CG.
Genuinely touching, incredibly clever and actually very emotional at times, Zathura deserved a better fate than being the lesser of the Chris Van Allsburg adaptations. Maybe if the astronaut had been played by Jimmy Fallon (God forbid...) or the boys been rendered as socially ironic brats with precious potty mouths to match, the movie would have scored larger box office receipts. Perhaps the wee ones found it too frightening, accustomed as they are to having their age-appropriate entertainment spoon fed to them in unexciting, non-threatening globs. It could be that those who initially attended, expecting some manner of Jumanji redux were confused by what they found and spread their unsettled word of mouth like the attendance-killing karma such a sentiment usually is. Whatever the case may be, DVD is now the place to rediscover this amazing gem of a film. Anyone dismissing this movie as nothing more than an F/X extravaganza formulated around yet another enchanted game is totally missing the point. Zathura is really about that time when you figured out what family is - and that's quite an adventure, when you come to think about it.
But the best bonus feature has to be the alternate narrative track with Favreau and Billingsley. Using it as an opportunity to defend their film as well as walk us through each and every aspect of the production, this is added content the way every celluloid discussion should be. Light, anecdotal, filled with a wealth of factual information, as well as being funny and comic without being crass, you can tell these guys are buddies and enjoy sharing time with the audience, and with each other. We learn that the film was shot mostly in sequence, that young Jonah Bobo memorized the entire script after the first read-through (and had to be reminded to revisit it during the course of the production) and that the fist draft of the screenplay was loaded with inappropriate - at least from a narrative standpoint - humor. From how the robot was realized to when and how his actors really got hurt, Favreau finds the process of moviemaking endlessly fascinating and he manages to make that feeling come across effortlessly in his comments. This is truly a terrific track, and along with some trailers of upcoming films, fleshes out the Zathura DVD release nicely.