Dir: Jon Favreau. US. 2005. 100mins.
Family features can often fall foul to several traps.One is that they end up as showcases for bedazzling special effects thatdominate the storytelling; another is that they rely on rote bodily function humour that may be funny to a six-year-old but is indicativeof lazy and uninspired writing. Either way they're divorced from the wide-eyedfeelings of adolescence that make everything seem heightened, surprising, more alive.
It's somethingthat Zathurasuccessfully avoids, mining that frequently untapped reservoir of feeling andcombining it with spry sensory pleasures. It results in a winning slice offamily entertainment that should, if properly marketed, find a welcomereception in a broad cross-section of households in the US, where it opens onNov 11.
Based on the bookby Chris Van Allsburg, it should continue the trendof successful adaptations of his material - as seen with
Surpassing thosefigures may be a tall order for Zathura, particularly given the impending holiday seasoncompetition of Harry Potter And TheGoblet Of Fire (Nov 18 in the US) and TheChronicles Of Narnia, which arrives on Dec 8. Jumanji also hadRobin Williams, then at the height of his popularity, as its lead. But Zathura's earlystart and positive word-of-mouth should still help it stake a decent box-officerun.
This is also afilm whose ancillary value should be quite high, if only the delights andsatisfaction of its fantastical story can be adequately conveyed, something itscurrent monolithic poster artwork - of a house drifting through outer space -doesnot fully achieve.
The story is setaround two bickering brothers, Walter (Josh Hutcherson)and his diminutive, six-year-old sibling, Danny (Jonah Bobo).Walter is athletic and outgoing, Danny is more cerebral, and though he secretlylooks up to his brother, the mature Walter can't be bothered ("I'm 10-years-old,I have a girlfriend," he notes) with the board games and fantasy adventures inwhich his younger sibling wants to engage.
When their father(Tim Robbins) leaves the pair alone in the care of their inattentive teensister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), Walter and Danny immediately start squabbling.Lowered into the basement via a dumbwaiter, Danny finds the titular, dusty,metallic board game. He tries to get Walter to play with him, but to no avail.When Danny starts playing by himself, a card pops up that reads: "Meteor shower- take evasive action."
After hot, moltenrocks pelt and pummel the house, Walter and Danny discover that they - andtheir entire house - have been magically transported into outer space. The onlyway back "home" is to complete the game, playing together, and escape whateverobstacles it throws in their way, so that it resets and restores everything tothe way it was.
Seeking help froma wayward astronaut (Dax Shepard), Danny and Walterdo battle with crazed, malfunctioning robots; nasty, carnivorous, lizard-likecreatures called Zorgons; and, of course, each otherbefore reconciling and finding their way home.
What gives Zathura itssubstantial emotional roots is a precise, skillful delineation of each kids' relationship with their father, a divorcee who'strying to juggle the demands of work and joint custody.
Grounding thestory in a real, if somewhat fractured, domesticity greatly benefits the movie,and while Walter in particular is vocal about the disintegration of his familyand who he chooses to blame, it's not over-the-top or out of line. Rather it feedsthe characterisations and conflict between the twobrothers in a measured, just-right fashion: not too heavy so as to be a drag,not too contrived so as to come off as emotionally irrelevant.
Likewise, whilethere's a real element of danger to the malfunctioning robot and alien attacks,it's mostly held at a comfortable distance by Favreau,who continues to prove himself a smart, economicaldirector after the success of Elf,which opened at a similar time of year.
While there arestill a few coverage issues here and there, and the special effects and storydo most of the heavy lifting in Zathura, very solid performances from Boboand Hutcherson must at least be chalked up to Favreau's casting choices and lightness of touch with hisyoung charges.
Sony Pictures Releasing International
Michael De Luca
David Koepp & John Kamps,from the book by Chris Van Allsburg
J Michael Riva