Saturday 14 May 2011

From the archive: "Zathura: A Space Adventure"

It's a sign of just how quickly special effects have come to dominate family films that, only a decade ago, the sight of computer generated rhinos and tigers chasing the only marginally less hairy Robin Williams around could have been seen (and sold) as a novelty. The kids raised on Jumanji have grown up now, and its unofficial sequel Zathura: A Space Adventure - again based on a Chris van Allsburg book, though featuring entirely new characters and performers - has to make its effects work a lot harder in the context of a multiplex already teeming with CG lions, apes and other animals.

Two young brothers (Josh Hutcherson and Jonah Bobo) are left on their own one Saturday afternoon in their father's beautiful yet empty timbered house (a set just begging to be smashed up somehow). After some squabbles, the youngest repairs to the basement, coming up with antiquated, mechanised space-race board game Zathura. It's not long into the game before the brothers realise they're in too deep, as the house is beset by meteor showers, giant robots, and lizard creatures from another planet.

The astronomy, and the emphasis on the two brothers, means Zathura will probably appeal most to young male viewers; where Jumanji had a youthful Kirsten Dunst caught up in the action, here the boys' sulky, Lavigne-esque sister (Kristen Stewart) gets cryogenically frozen after taking a wrong turn, and is defrosted only to start batting her eyelashes at an astronaut (Dax Shepard). The young heroes, meanwhile, get saddled with a lot of issues that are, in their own way, illustrative of where the family movie is right now: recently divorced parents (dad's study is cluttered with unpacked belongings), short attention spans, a degree of insecurity over the amount of parental love still available to them.

The now-ness is sometimes overdone: the sister has a joke about the 18-rated film Thirteen that'll be beyond anomalous for Zathura's target age range, and the movie opens with a cacophony of fractious fraternal arguments, against which the later, noisy effects only come as a relief. With the exception of a last-reel time-travel twist, the story feels like a total rehash of Jumanji, right down to Shepard's character, who - like Williams in the earlier movie - has been trapped inside the game specifically, it sometimes seems, to dispense hard-won morals.

Again, it's wearying the film should take on the structure of the board game in question: one roll of the dice (or, here, one push of a button) after another, setting up one more set-piece; Jon Favreau's direction often feels as mechanised as the game that motivates it. (That said, Zathura itself is a wonderful item of production design: whirry and clicky and on just the right side of beaten up.) There's also a stray moral that parents might want to address on the way home, in that these kids don't have to clean up after themselves. Still, it's an otherwise solidly enjoyable expression of the old maxim that the family that plays together stays together - and admirably quaint in its suggestion that something as old-fashioned as a board game can be as effective as, say, Kickfighter 2 or Ritalin in keeping young ones quiet, at least for a bit.

(February 2006)

Zathura: A Space Adventure screens on five tomorrow at 6.05pm.

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