Remember Elf, the comedy that starred Will Ferrill as an overgrown, boundlessly enthusiastic man reared by elves? The movie was so much better than most of us expected it to be. Instead of simply showcasing Ferrill's hilarious performance, director Jon Favreau crafted a rock solid production that looked, sounded and felt like one of those they-don't-make-them-like-that-anymore films.
Favreau works similar magic with the fantasy feature Zathura. He has no breakthrough star this time and the story - think Jumanji in outer space - is an adventure with some laughs instead of a comedy, but Favreau has taken a project that could have been as big a turn-off as ... well, Jumanji, and created a fast-moving, highly-entertaining film with a refreshing retro look.
That Zathura works so well is a tribute to the vision of Favreau, because the story has a serious structural defect. Because of this basic flaw, I found myself thoroughly admiring the movie, but never getting fully involved in the story. More about that in a bit.
The screenplay, by David Koepp and John Kamps, is based on the novel by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote Jumanji. The focus is on a pair of young brothers: 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and 6-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo), trying to adjust to the big old house recently purchased by their dad (Tim Robbins, who disappears early on and is not seen again until the closing moments).
Pop takes off, leaving the squabbling boys with their teen-age sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), whose determination to stay in her bedroom forces the brothers to fend for themselves. Little Danny goes to the basement (with an assist by Walter, who crams the kid into a dumbwaiter) and returns with a potential diversion: a '50s-style space-themed board game called Zathura.
After some nagging, Walter finally agrees to play and the boys discover the secret of the game. Players take turns winding a metal turnkey to see how many squares their tin spaceship will move across the board. When the ship reaches its appointed spot, a card pops up. To their horror, the boys quickly discover that whatever it says on the card instantly comes true in the real word.
Meteors rip through the house and that's just the beginning. The brothers discover that the entire house is floating in outer space (in a magic air bubble or something - best you don't even think about it). Before long they must deal with a giant robot (voiced by Frank Oz) and vicious lizard-like aliens known as Zorgons (along with the film's title, this fulfills the requirement that all sci-fi must include a character, species or planet whose name begins with a "Z"). Later, an astronaut (Dax Shepard) shows up to lend the kids some support, which is helpful as big sister Lisa remains mostly out of sight.
The fantastic goings-on are fun to behold. Favreau keeps it all moving briskly most of the time and the special effects are a treat. Thankfully, the filmmaker opts for costumes, props and miniatures, avoiding computer-generated effects as much as possible. The result is a movie that has a sense of physicality lacking in typical contemporary fantasy fare.
Zathura looks terrific, the music is effective and the cast is talented. Unfortunately, Jon Favreau's best efforts can't disguise the fundamental passivity of the story. A big part of the appeal of tales like this is experiencing the adventure vicariously through the lead players, but because of the story structure, the lead characters don't do much of anything.
One of the boys goes on a brief rescue mission, but for most of the movie, they pull the handle of the game, a card pops up, something amazing happens and they freak out. Then, after hiding or arguing or both, they take another turn, because that's the only thing they can do.
Which leaves a movie easy to appreciate, but hard to get involved in. Though Jon Favreau has done fine work, the bottom line is that you can't have a real adventure without derring-do and Zathura derring-doesn't.