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Zathura: A Space Adventure
Review written by: Alex Sandell

In the early to mid-80's Amblin Entertainment released a string of hits that had families lining up around the block.  Walt Disney was having its worst period as a studio and Steven Spielberg's Amblin was picking up the slack.  With films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Gremlins, The Goonies and Back to the Future, Amblin earned its spot at the top as a production company.  Its films had a special sort of feel to them that has never been duplicated to this day. 

Director Jon Favreau hopes to change all that with the release of Zathura.  The movie is based on the book of the same name, which was written and illustrated by Chris Van Allsburg as a sequel to his 1981 hit, Jumanji.  The plot is extremely similar to Jumanji; only set in space.  The difference between the film version of Jumanji and the Zathura adaptation is the style of effects and directing. 

Joe Johnston used bad computer generated (CG) effects, a scenery-chomping Robin Williams and a mediocre "Spielberg-light" style of directing to create Jumanji.  In creating Zathura Jon Favreau was determined to use practical effects as often as possible; making a film that feels more like a homage to Steven Spielberg and the early Amblin Entertainment releases, rather than a slapdash rip-off of Jurassic Park

I have nothing against computer generated FX.  Hell, the two movies I heaped the most praise on so far this year (Revenge of the Sith and Sin City) are full of computer animation, and kept the in camera effects to a minimum.  But both of the movies, along with plenty of other films, would have benefited from using the CG a little more sparingly, and in combination with the "old-fashioned" tricks of the trade.

Like many moviegoers, Favreau has noticed how saturated with CG modern film has become.  Better yet, with Zathura, he's done something about it.  "We used digital effects here and there to help smooth out the rough edges," Favreau remarks, "but at its core, we wanted the main set pieces to be based in the real world, in a practical environment."  The director sums it up perfectly when he says, "To me, movies with too many digital effects look like a video game." 

As soon as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park were released with their CG robots and dinosaurs, drooling directors without the skills of a Spielberg, a Lucas or a Cameron "saw the future" and eagerly jumped aboard the computer generated bandwagon.  Moviemakers quickly forgot that CG was merely another tool to help them create a believable visual experience -- not the only tool.  Why use a pinch of salt to add flavor to a great meal, when you can serve a brick of it as dinner? 

There must be a reason that kids are watching non-animated movies that came out 20 years ago, more than they do movies released last year.  Maybe they recognize -- at least in their subconscious minds -- the difference between practical and computer generated effects.  Those gremlins on screen are real.  The monsters in Van Helsing are cartoons.  E.T. is a palpable character.  The talking fish in The Cat in the Hat is a cartoon.  Scooby-Doo, Hulk, Sharkboy ... the "hits" kept on flopping. 

And then out comes Zathura and this wacky Jon Favreau guy (previously known for more Independent type work, such as Swingers and Made), who wanted to work on real sets, with real actors, and mix it up with real effects.  And man, did he ever succeed.  Effects wise, this is the best family film in a decade.  Jon Favreau kept his word by keeping CG to a minimum and providing a world of wild robot effects, models, miniatures, men in monster costumes and a million other sparkly little shards of on-screen magic. 

Was it worth it?  Will the younger generation even notice?  Absolutely!  And because of this world of corporeal creatures and practical effects they're going to believe in this movie in a way that many have never believed in a film on the big screen before. 

When a robot chased the kids in the movie through their house, the kids in the audience at the preview I attended were laughing and clapping harder than I've heard kids laugh and clap over a non-animated film in at least a decade.  This is the laughter I remember hearing as child -- boisterous, believing, swept away by the film.  Listening to the children at the October 29th 2005 Zathura screening made me feel like I was put in a time machine and zapped back to 1982. 

Zathura is a simple enough story.  A dad (Tim Robbins) leaves his 6-year old son, Danny (Jonah Bobo) and 10-year-old son, Walter (Josh Hutcherson) to the care of their self-absorbed teenage sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart).  Danny discovers the game, Zathura.  When his brother refuses to play it with him, a bored Danny starts playing the game himself.  He presses a button and watches as his spaceship moves a few spaces ahead and a card is spit out of the board.  It reads:  "Meteor Shower: Take Evasive Action."  Within seconds Danny and Walter are caught in a meteor shower. 

When the shower passes, the two boys open the front door and find that their house has been dislodged and is cruising through space.  Josh reads the directions to the game and is told that they must play 'til the end before their pieces return home.  Each turn brings about a new adventure.  Tying things together and making the film a story, rather than a series of random events, is the  contentious relationship between the two brothers, a mysterious astronaut, and a heat-seeking reptilian alien race known as the Zorgons. 

The stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard) is sort of a weird father figure in the movie and tries his best to stop the siblings from bickering.  He's especially concerned over the way Walter treats his younger brother.  The brothers, along with the astronaut and their newly thawed sister (I don't think she ever finds out she was frozen), must fight off the Zorgons, while confronting a potentially bigger problem:  The erosion and potential destruction of their relationship. 

Screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps are 2/3rd's successful in growing Zathura from a meager 32 page children's story to a full length feature film.  The middle  -- which ends up feeling exceedingly draggy -- needed to be tightened (the movie runs about 20 minutes too long).  When you get to the end of the film and find out where it was headed, the events in the mid-section make more sense and feel less like padding, but the second act needed a little nip and tuck in the editing room. 

The first third of the movie successfully establishes the relationship the brothers have with one another.  The boys themselves behave like kids actually behave.  It's a welcome change from the semi-creepy Haley Joel Osment/Dakota Fanning "40-year-old in a child's body" trend that's swept the movie industry.  The film's last act has some expertly crafted suspense scenes, which incorporate some of the coolest monsters to hit the screen since the Velociraptors in Jurassic Park.  It never gets too scary for the kids, but it's thrilling enough to keep their eyes glued to the screen throughout. 

Zathura is released a week before the PG-13 rated Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  This could be commercial suicide or, if marketed correctly, the smartest idea since not showing the shark in the advertisements for the original Jaws.  I'm really hoping parents don't completely overlook this one.  The movie works as a great alternative for families concerned that the new Harry Potter will be too scary for the 12 and under set.  Kids in that age group will more than likely prefer Zathura anyway.

While the movie is geared toward the under 12 set, its appeal is wide-ranging.  Mothers will love to hear their children giggling with glee over the Frank Oz (Yoda, Miss Piggy) voiced robot.  Fathers will have a great time watching the effects and letting waves of nostalgia wash over them.  While the movie doesn't have enough genuine adult themes to suck a grown man or woman into its storyline; adults without children who have an interest in "old-fashioned" special effects, are still bound to enjoy the film. 

Zathura isn't as engaging as it could have been, but it's still a fun ride.  It's heartfelt, exciting, funny, scary, visually captivating and, most importantly, a welcome return to the kind of special-effects used before the advent of computer generated imagery.  The kind that looked real.  The kind that made you believe in what you were seeing on screen, no matter how outlandish it was.  Just like the films produced by Amblin Entertainment, all those years ago.  If you have pre-adolescent children, Zathura may very well be the must-see family film of the year. 

Agree, disagree, wish you remembered to brush your teeth?  Email Alex!

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