Letter From The Editor - Issue 41 - September 2014

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
November 2005

A solid suburban space opera

Zathura
Columbia Pictures
Director: Jon Favreau
Screenplay: David Koepp and John Kamps, based on the book by Chris Van Allsberg
Starring: Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart and Tim Robbins
Rated PG/1 hour, 53 minutes
Opened Nov. 11, 2005
(out of four)

There's just something about a giant, Frank Oz-voiced robot running roughshod through a suburban household that's kind of hard to resist.

Those are the kinds of delightful charms one will find throughout Zathura, a captivating fantasy that should please both children and adults.

Directed by Jon Favreau, who helmed 2003's surprisingly good Elf, this film is based on a book by popular children's author Chris Van Allsberg. But unlike last year's Van Allsberg adaptation, the dreadful The Polar Express, this one actually has enough story to sustain a feature-length running time.

Countless people have already compared this to 1995's Jumanji (also from Van Allsberg), and the comparison is warranted--except Zathura takes place in outer space. So there you go.

The story is cut from a classic mold--after their father (Tim Robbins) goes out to the office, two brothers struggling to co-exist after their parents' divorce discover a magical board game which takes them into outer space where they battle defective robots, stranded astronauts and, of course, Zorgons. Who hasn't had to deal with a few Zorgons every now and then?

The brothers are six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson). They aren't getting along these days. Walter resents his little brother, can't stand the fact that he can't even catch a baseball, and seems to blame him for their parents' divorce. Danny, meanwhile, is tired of being teased and ignored by Walter. Sometimes, he hides in the house's dumbwaiter.

When their dad goes to the office, he puts their older sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart, the daughter from Panic Room) in charge, but she thoughtlessly goes back to sleep, and never seems to notice when a meteor shower shoots through the house as it sails through outer space.

How do they get there? Well, Danny finds an old game, "Zathura: A Space Adventure," collecting dust in the basement and asks Walter if he wants to play. At first, he refuses, but eventually gets sucked in. It's a game for two players only--you turn the key, go X number of spaces and then a card pops out informing you what is about to happen--such as "Meteor Shower: Take evasive action" or "Get attacked by Zorgons."

What, you may ask, are Zorgons? Well, they're an alien race that likes to burn things and eat people--but it's all in good fun. The creatures themselves are a fantastic-looking piece of design work--some of the best I've seen all year.

Danny and Walter take turns, with practically each new card yielding a new adventure or near-death experience. For example, Walter's rocket-powered three-inch robot grows to enormous proportions and tries to kill him, setting up one of the film's best action sequences.

Along the way, the boys rescue a stranded astronaut, as per the instructions on the card. Played by Dax Shepard (from the first season of MTV's Punk'd), the astronaut assists the boys in fighting through an assortment of emergencies, most notably two separate Zorgon attacks.

In many ways, Zathura is reminiscent of Robert Rodriguez' The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl, which came out earlier this year. Both are about young kids who get sucked into a fantastical world and have to fight adventure after adventure in order to finally get home. Only this is a much stronger film from start to finish--better-written and much more entertaining. For one thing, Favreau isn't trying nearly as hard as Rodriguez--he provides thrills and laughs effortlessly; Rodriguez' imagination just got the best of him and his film was a mess.

Favreau started off writing and directing indie guy movies like the extremely well-written cult hit Swingers, as well as Made. He seems to have carved himself a nice little niche, at least for now, having made two very good family films in a row. Next, he'll adapt the Edgar Rice Burroughs sci-fi novel, John Carter of Mars. But his work is invaluable in Zathura. Not only does the film look great from a visual standpoint (and, might I add, doesn't rely too much on CGI, which is so often the case), but the film's writing and its action sequences both work quite well. The movie is loaded with nice humorous touches, and there is one wonderful surprise at the end, during which the film find its heart.

There are plenty of dumb children's movies that adults must willfully sit through, but here is one, thankfully, that can appeal to just about any age group, even cynical teenagers and collegians. I have not read Van Allsberg's book, but I can only assume he must be pleased with this adaptation. Zathura is funny and touching and consistently, effortlessly enjoyable.

Read more by Chris Bellamy


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