As I settled in and found myself subjected to an ersatz Tim Burton opening-credit sequence (albeit a pretty neat one) backed by an ersatz Danny Elfman score (not so neat, but not disgraceful), it was impossible not to believe that there were some pretty rough seas ahead. Thankfully, director Jon Favreau almost immediately dropped the bogus Burton business and created a movie with its own personality. And a splendid little personality it is.
Yeah, Zathura works on pretty much the same premise as Jumanji, which was also adapted from a children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg (of Polar Express fame). The entire story is predicated on the concept of playing a board game that whisks the player into another world, and the only way home is to play to the end. There are differences, though, and the biggest lies in the decision not to turn the story into a star vehicle or a CGI-athon. In the hands of Favreau and screenwriters David Koepp (Stir of Echoes) and John Kamps (The Borrowers), the story is simply allowed to be what it is. This is what makes this unassuming movie something rather special.
If I were 12 years old, I’d think it was the best movie ever made — and even though it missed me by nearly 40 years, I was still pretty darn enchanted by it. One reason for this is that Favreau and company really understand the essence of what they’re doing, and they don’t cheat. Oh, sure, the movie contains one of those inescapable messages that adults feel is necessary to justify the existence of all children’s stories (and one I’m supposing is in the book, too). But here, it’s integral to the plot and well done.
The great strength of Zathura, however, is that it doesn’t cheat in the manner of many such stories (anyone who’s ever felt ripped-off by whatever “it was only a dream” variant has marred an otherwise fantastic adventure by way of a conclusion knows exactly what I mean). No such silliness occurs here. This is a wild ride that doesn’t back down — and you get the sense that Favreau is making up for this kind of cheat with the whole tone of his film.
It’s not just the 1950s (or earlier) look of the Zathura game that gives the movie its retro feel. Everything about it seems to come from an earlier time — as if this is the best 1955 movie never made. This is the flick you always hoped to bump into on Saturday afternoon, and never did, just as its fantasticated board game is the kind you really wished were inside those boxes with all the tantalizing graphics on them. And I suspect that feel is deliberate on Favreau’s part: Zathura comes across as a very personal reflection of childhood (why else end it with Paul Simon’s “Loves Me Like a Rock,” a song that would have been popular when Favreau was 7 or 8?).
The interstellar adventure works on a child’s logic — messy scientific reality doesn’t intrude (though the time travel/doppelganger aspect is effectively thought out). Likewise, the overall story line and events are similarly childlike in their predictability. However, this is the kind of predictability that charms by doing exactly what you want it to do — and sometimes that’s as good as a surprise.
The question, though, is whether a film that might have delighted a kid in 1960 or 1970 will have sufficient appeal to the video-game generation. Does a wind-up board game with Flash Gordon-style pressed-tin rocket ships hold the same kind of appeal to the imagination of a modern child? Let’s hope so. If nothing else, Favreau has crafted a movie that will appeal to a lot of us who aren’t in that group — and that ought to buy it a shot at becoming a cult classic, if not a sleeper hit. Rated PG for fantasy action and peril, and some language.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke