Saturday, February 13, 2010

Review: "Zathura" is an Excellent Sci-Fi Adventure

TRASH IN MY EYE No. 73 (of 2006) by Leroy Douresseaux

Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
Opening date: November 11, 2005
Running time: 101 minutes; MPAA – PG for fantasy action and peril, and some language
DIRECTOR: Jon Favreau
WRITERS: David Koepp & John Kamps (based upon the book by Chris Van Allsburg)
PRODUCERS: Michael De Luca, Scott Kroopf, and William Teitler
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Guillermo Navarro
EDITOR: Dan Lebental

SCI-FI/FANTASY/ACTION/ADVENTURE/FAMILY with elements of comedy and drama

Starring: Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, Dax Sheppard, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins, and (voice) Frank Oz

After discovering a mysterious game called “Zathura” in the basement of their father’s (Tim Robbins) house, two brothers, 6-year old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and 10-year old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) find their home flying in space, after Danny begins to play the game. The brothers realize that they must finish the game by reaching the planet Zathura, or they’ll be trapped in space forever. If that weren’t enough, their doubting sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart), is trapped with them. The bossy Astronaut (Dax Sheppard) is eating all the food they have in the refrigerator, and a vicious alien race of flesh-eating lizards, the Zorgons, is trying to destroy everyone and the house.

Zathura: A Space Adventure is the third film based upon a book by children’s storybook author, Chris Van Allsburg, following Jumanji and The Polar Express. In fact, Zathura was a kind of follow up to Jumanji, as both books dealt with children finding enchanted board games that send them on perilous adventures. Director Jon Favreau (Elf) also made a point of using practical effects as much as possible over computer generated images (CGI). In a way, Zathura is Favreau’s nod to the sci-fi and fantasy films of the late 1970 and the 1980’s that used miniatures, puppets, on-set pyrotechnics, superbly crafted props, makeup, and creature effects (suits and prosthetics) because there was no CGI to create fantastic worlds, creatures, and situations. Favreau’s film especially seems to reference Steven Spielberg’s early work (Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial), in particular the Spielberg’s use of light and sound to create the presence of otherworldly creatures.

In fact, the film has an old-timey charm to it. It’s not the grand, testosterone, CGI extravaganza’s like the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings franchises or The Chronicles of Narnia that have come to define big, family-oriented, event fantasy films. Favreau relies on a savvy crew of craftsman, engineers, technicians, artists, etc. that use its collective hands and wits to build on-set special effects. There is some CGI, and it is almost never as impressive as the non-computer stuff. Everything seems so real and earthy. The perils are dangerous, but not so dangerous that two resourceful boys couldn’t survive it. Favreau’s real effects have a way of making the viewer feel that he’s in that house with Walter and Danny, racing to find a way home.

In telling this story of sibling rivalry, children of divorce, and brotherly love and bonding, Favreau leans heavily on his leads, Josh Hutcherson and Jonah Bobo. They are wonderful and have superb screen chemistry. They create a big brother/little brother dynamic that is uncannily genuine. Hutcherson’s performance as a pre-teen boy is excellent and, ironically, beyond his years. He’s definitely a pro, and he acts more than he pretends (still a problem with some child actors). Bobo as Danny is surprisingly emotive. His performance comes alive in his facial expressions and in his wide, expressive eyes. He buys into Zathura’s scenario and has fun. Kristen Stewart is also fun in a woefully small and underutilized part as the sister, Lisa. I found Dax Sheppard’s performance as The Astronaut to be a mixed bag; sometimes he was good, and other times he wore his performance on his sleeve by overacting.

A flop when it was released in early fall of 2005, Zathura: A Space Adventure is a throwback film aimed at an audience (particularly young boys) that is more familiar with wide open CGI films than it is with old-fashioned sci-fi yarns that recall the golden age of juvenile sci-fi: rockets, boy astronauts, and reptilian aliens. They weren’t even born when miniature props and puppetry made hits of films like Gremlins and The Last Starfighter. Zathura’s tale of brother’s working together and of discovery has a sense of fun that is as wide-eyed as Jonah Bobo’s Danny. It’s a simple adventure film that may find a long, deserved life on TV.

7 of 10

Saturday, April 15, 2006



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