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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.
It's another typical day in the newly divorced life of Danny and Walter. Dad tries to be attentive and involved, but his job constantly calls him away. Big sister Lisa is only concerned with her future dating plans. The brothers fight constantly, the ten-year-old Walter resenting how six-year-old Danny (the baby of the family) fails at everything. When their father leaves them for a short while to attend a meeting, the siblings start at it again. While trying to escape his brother, Danny stumbles upon an old game in the basement of the house. It is called 'Zathura', and promises a clockwork and gear, tin game board "space adventure". Danny decides to give it a whirl. Before they know it, the house is under attack from what seems to be...a meteorite shower. Sure enough, the game has transported them, house and all, into space. In order to get back home, they must play it all the way through to the end. Along the way, they will run into a killer robot, a friendly marooned astronaut, and a race of evil reptile people called the Zorgons. As long as they can keep their wits, and continue with the game, they have a chance of getting back to Earth. But this charmed amusement seems to have a mind of its own, and won't let the boys win so easily - not until they learn some important life lessons.
Zathura is why movies are magic. Zathura is the very definition of escapist entertainment. It has heart and soul, weight and gravity. In the hands of another filmmaker, this movie may have instantly crashed and burned, playing like the Jumanji variation it so readily is. But instead, Indie vet Jon Favreau draws on the everlasting delights of the Spielberg/Amblin era of fantasy films and creates something of a minor masterpiece. It's so old school you begin to wonder why Christopher Lloyd isn't one of the co-stars. This is cinematic craftsmanship at the highest level, a movie that moves beyond the big, the loud, the brash and the bombastic to deliver a deceptively simple tale about brotherly love, sibling rivalry, and the enigmatic ties that bind. It instantly eclipses the other films made out of Chris Van Allsburg's artistically clever books and positions itself to be rediscovered, and cherished, a few years down the road. All it needs is time and distance. As Jumanji continues to grow more and more dated, Zathura will take its rightful place as a true blue family classic.
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.
Vibrant without being brash, colorful without creating transfer issues, the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image offered by Sony for the digital release of Zathura is very good indeed. The details are crisp and clean and the contrasts between dark and light are dynamic and dense. Favreau doesn't fill his palette with all kinds of exaggerated hues. Instead, he controls his tints, the better to bolster the authenticity of his narrative. Though it is definitely not reference quality, this is an excellent DVD presentation from the optical end.
Sony has also stepped up and given us a loud and layered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. During the action scenes, the subwoofer literally quakes with bottom, while the dialogue is always easily decipherable in the front channels. While it would have been nice to have a more immersive experience (this is space travel, after all), the ambience and atmosphere created here is excellent. Also, a special mention must go out to John Debney (The Passion of the Christ, Sin City), who scores Zathura like it's Ben Hur meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Such orchestrated opulence comes across extremely well in this powerful and professional aural offering.
In a rather surprising move, Sony gives us almost an hour and a half of added content as part of this single disc release. Aside from the full length audio commentary featuring Favreau and his co-producer pal Peter Billingsley (more on this in a moment) we are treated to several making-of featurettes, covering everything from the cast and the creatures, to the actual game itself. The official 'behind the scenes' documentary, entitled "Race to the Black Planet" shows us several amazing elements of the production, like the gimbled set and the live action 'aliens'. "The Right Moves" discusses how the screenwriters opened up the story, sticking very close to Van Allsburg's book while exploring the emotional relationships between the characters. The author is also given his due in a biographical piece entitled "The World of Chris Van Allsburg" and the actors involved get a pleasant profile in "The Cast". The best is saved for last, though. How Favreau avoided CG and utilized more physical effects can be seen in the presentations of "Miniatures" as well as the Stan Winston based-profile "Zorgons, Robots and Frozen Lisa". Seeing the amount of imagination that went into these designs is incredibly enlightening and endlessly fascinating. Finally, "Making the Game" illustrates how the bedeviled board game called Zathura became a tin toy terror for our heroes.
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.
All Zathura needs is time. It needs to be separated from its CGI stepbrothers and allowed to live on its own. Once the novelty of computer aided F/X wears off, or renders past examples laughable ancient history, this fine fantasy film will have its chance to shine. Action adventure used to be this involving and inventive, filled with creative conceits that were supposed to aid, not overshadow, the story and the characters. In the hands of the more than capable Jon Favreau, Zathura balances all the cinematic particulars brilliantly. How a movie this assured, this capable of breezy, engaging entertainment wasn't a massive hit is a mystery that even the most seasoned Cineplex scholar probably couldn't solve. With its release on DVD, it's time to give this overlooked title a try. It easily earns a Highly Recommended rating, and equally worms its way into the pantheon of family friendly classics. Years from now, when it's championed as a marvelous example of early post-millennial moviemaking, you can hold your head up proudly and say you were one of the first to recognize it as such. Frankly, the other movies made of Chris Van Allsburg's work can't hold a cosmic candle to this otherwise remarkable achievement.
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