Zathura: A Space Adventure
June 14, 2006
It’s not the most likely of pairings. Take an actor who made his name in Swingers, give him the director’s chair for the sequel to Jumanji, throw in two unknown child actors as leads and hope for the best. Funny then, that that’s just what we get. Zathura, though this time set in space as opposed to dealing with jungle critters in your living room, is arguably better than its predecessor in just about every way, from special FX to story to performances. Favreau may have only directed one movie prior to this (the lacklustre Elf) but his old-school technique pays dividends in helping us believe in the story, resorting to CGI only when necessary.
It also helps having one of the best screenwriters in the business on board (Koepp wrote Spiderman and War of the Worlds). It would be easy for a film about two brothers arguing over a board game to fall into sentimental territory, but Koepp is well aware that children pull no punches. Add in a stroppy teenage sister and we’re practically in Jerry Springer land. What makes Zathura such a joy is that it already has the rules clearly set out: throw the dice (or in this case push the button) and witness the consequences of the game, whether it’s an indoor meteor shower or a killer robot. We know the kids are in for trouble – the fun is watching them get through it all in one piece.
Tim Robbins has a small but pivotal role as a newly divorced father, trying to juggle his time with kids Danny and Walter, a new house and his work. Older brother Walter gets pissed and sends Danny into the basement where he finds an old board game called Zathura. Reluctantly Walter agrees to play the game while their dad is out and the next minute they find their house transported into deep space. Favreau had a modest budget by today’s standards but he uses the money well. If you’re wondering how they got the robot to look so realistic it’s because most of it is. It’s a guy in a suit. They just added CGI limbs. It’s this sort of clever mixture of on-set creation and cutting edge CGI that makes it so hard to see the joins. Chances are the shot you thought was CGI was all done for real, and vice versa. Spielberg would approve.
Danny and Josh’s sister Lisa, played by Panic Room’s Kirsten Stewart, doesn’t have much to do until the second half thanks to some tricksy writing (in what other genre but sci-fi could you literally freeze a character for several scenes) but her horror at her little brothers trying to burn the house down to get rid of some nasty carnivorous aliens is constantly amusing: “You actually set the house on fire!” There’s also a really great twist and a very funny payoff that means repeat viewings are an absolute must, but we wouldn’t want to spoil it for you.
Featurettes include: ‘The Right Moves’ (making of), ‘Race to the Planet’ (visual FX), ‘Cast’, ‘Zorgons, Robots and Frozen Lisa’, ‘Making the Game’, ‘Miniatures’, ‘The World of Chris Van Allsburg’ (author), ‘Your Robot is Defective’ (easter egg – press left twice on the main menu and ‘Go’ will light up. Press enter to see an outtake)
The audio commentary with Jon Favreau and producer Peter Billingsley is entertaining and enlightening (Favreau mostly learnt about FX as the movie went on and Billingsley knew how to handle child actors because he used to be one). One of the most enjoyable family movies of recent times, this deserves much more praise than it got at the cinema.