Zathura review by Mike Long

Zathura tells the story of two brothers, Danny (Jonah Bobo), and this older brother, Walter (Josh Hutcherson). The two boys are constantly competing and bickering and their hostility is only fueled by their domestic situation, where they live with their newly divorced father (Tim Robbins) in a house that they don't like. One Saturday afternoon, their dad has to go to a meeting, so the boys are left at home with their sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart), a narcoleptic teenager who is sleeping in her room. Following a particularly nasty fight, Walter chases Danny into the basement. There, the younger boy finds a very old game called "Zathura" and brings it upstairs.

Once Danny begins to play "Zathura", things get really weird. The game is a space adventure, where little rockets move around a board and a card is given to the player for each round. The first card reads "Meteor Shower", and the house is suddenly pelted with meteors. When this subsides, the boys realize that their house is now floating through outer space. As Lisa is at first unwilling and then unable to assist, the Danny and Walter grasp that they must continue playing the game until the conclusion. Of course, this means that the game keeps giving them cards with ever increasing outer-space perils. Will the boys survive long enough to make it home?

If the overall premise of Zathura sounds familiar, it's because it comes from the same author of 1995's Jumanji, Chris Van Allsburg. As in that film, Zathura deals with two children who come across an old game which comes to life once they start playing it. But, while Jumanji took the action outside, all of Zathura takes place inside Danny and Walter's house. As the movie progresses, the brothers are faced by more-and-more obstacles which will be familiar to fans of science fiction.

And like Jumanji, Zathura dwells somewhere between dark fantasy and a family film. The overall premise, two boys facing robots and aliens, will certainly appeal to children, as these are the kinds of adventures about which children often daydream. The movie is filled with special effects and action scenes featuring the bizarre repercussions of playing the game. However, the movie also features some very serious themes as well. The sibling rivalry between Danny and Walter becomes quite heated at times, and Walter's behavior towards his brother, while realistic to an extent, may be upsetting to some. And while the movie definitely has some funny moments, no doubt compliments of director Jon Favreau, the movie doesn't have the cartoony feel of Jumanji.

The drawback of Zathura is that it never quite fulfills its potential. The movie has an interesting premise, nice special effects, competent acting, and good pacing, but it's never as exciting or involving as I would have liked. As noted above, the movie has a somewhat serious tone, so I can't accuse it of pulling any punches. It may have to do with the fact that this is a family film and we know that the boys will never be in any real danger. Or perhaps blame lies with director Jon Favreau, whose past resume includes many comedies, but nothing which comes close to sci-fi or adventure. (Although, to his credit, the finale of Elf is suspenseful.)

Despite this somewhat lackluster feel, Zathura is still worth seeing. Some questionable language aside, the film is that rare family film which will wow youngsters and keep adolescents entertained. (On the DVD's audio commentary, Favreau states that he didn't understand why people were upset by the language. I don't need my kid calling me a dick.) Fans of science-fiction, especially sci-fi films from the 50s, will appreciate the film's nods to sci-fi standards. The movie may not be a great adventure, but like a board game, it's a nice way to spend an afternoon.

Zathura flies onto DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is sharp and clear, showing essentially no grain. The colors are very good, and this is most evident when the bright tones of something like Lisa's room are contrasted with the darkness of space. Speaking of dark, I was concerned that the transfer was overly dark (or that my TV was burning out) once the aliens attack, but in the extras on the DVD, Favreau explains that the made these scenes dark on purpose to make the aliens more mysterious. There was some mild artifacting on the image, but it won't distract most viewers. While the video transfer is good, the audio on the Zathura is one of the best Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks that I've heard in a long time. The dialogue is clear and audible and there is no distortion or hissing. The surround sound effects are nearly constant once the space adventure begins and they add a ton of dimension to the film. The stereo and surround effects are appropriately placed and perfectly match the on-screen action. Likewise, the bass response is at a wall-shaking best and each explosion or tremor can be seen and felt. This will now be one of my demo DVDs for audio.

The Zathura DVD is loaded with extras, although there are no deleted scenes or any other extra footage. Director Jon Favreau and co-producer Peter Billingsley (yes, the kid from A Christmas Story) provide an audio commentary for the film. They speak at length throughout the movie, discussing special effects, the actors and how the movie was shot. Favreau makes many comments concerning the special effects and the work that went into creating the environment on the set. Oddly, they don't discuss the story very much. The remainder of the extras are comprised by several featurettes. "Race to the Black Planet" (12 minutes) examines how practical effects were used in the film as opposed to CGI including on-set stunts. "The Right Moves" (15 minutes) looks at the adaptation of the book, the story and the characters. "The Cast" (13 minutes) profiles each actor and includes some audition footage. We get a first-hand look at the construction of the house and the spaceships in "Miniatures" (10 minutes). "The World of Chris Van Allsburg" (13 minutes) features an interview with the author as well as pictures from his many books. Stan Winston and his crew talk about the creation of the creature effects in "Zorgons, Robots, and Frozen Lisa" (17 minutes). Finally, "Making the Game" (14 minutes) looks at the work which went into making the actual game used in the film.

7 out of 10 Jackasses

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