Reel Opinions

Sunday, November 06, 2005


How can a movie get it so right, and at the same time, get it so wrong? This is the question I kept on asking myself while watching Zathura, the new family sci-fi adventure film from director Jon Favreau (Elf). Here is a movie that starts out wonderful, honest, exciting, and wondrous. But then, and you can almost pinpoint the exact moment, the script goes on autopilot and turns into an overly loud mindless video game of a movie. I don't know if it was studio influence or the fault of screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps, but as the movie increased its volume (people screaming every single line, explosions firing off every two seconds), I quickly became discouraged. When the movie throws a last minute plot twist that makes no sense whatsoever, not to mention the fact that the script makes no effort at all to even explain it, I threw my hands up in defeat. Zathura never quite becomes a chore to sit through, and is light years better than the uninspired Chicken Little when it comes to family entertainment. But still, I couldn't shake the feeling that they were on to something really good, and went in the totally wrong direction come the half-way point.

6-year old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and 10-year old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) are a pair of feuding brothers who are spending some time at their dad's (Tim Robbins) as the film opens. The main source of sibling rivalry between the two is that older brother Walter is highly competitive, good at sports, and generally enjoys shoving his accomplishments in the face of the dejected Danny, who feels like he's no good at anything. Danny feels alone in the world, as not even his older sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart from Panic Room) even seems to know he's alive. With dad away on business, and their mom still hours away from picking them up, the two brothers quickly begin to quarrel when they're left alone, resulting in Danny being banished to the basement. While exploring his "prison", the child happens across an old 1950s outer space-themed board game called "Zathura". Intrigued by the sci-fi theme, Danny takes the game upstairs and begins to play.

Anyone who saw the 1995 film, Jumanji, pretty much knows what to expect next, as this film is based on a book by the same author, Chris Van Allsburg. The game is a space race as two metallic motorized spaceships automatically move themselves across the game's board when one of the two brothers spins the counter that dictates the number of spaces the player can move. When the model ship lands on a square, a card pops out of a slot, depicting some kind of space-related emergency. Whatever is stated on the card comes true immediately. When one of the boys draws a card that talks of a meteor shower, meteorites come crashing through the living room ceiling, destroying everything in their path. When another draws a card about a defective robot, a giant killer robot (voiced by Frank Oz) starts rampaging through their house, hellbent on wiping the kids out. With their house now seemingly floating through the vast reaches of outer space (strangely enough, they still have gravity, and can even breathe when they step outside of the house) and the situation increasingly worsening with each turn of the spinner, the brothers must rely on the help of a mysterious astronaut (Dax Shepard) who seems to know a lot about the game, and might be their only hope of completing and finishing the game (the only way for everything to return to normal) before the dreaded lizard-like, man-eating Zorgon aliens wind up destroying their house and them as well.

The first half of Zathura is when the film is at its best and filled me with hope. The movie opens with a wonderful opening credit sequence as the camera pans across different parts of the game board. It's nostalgic 1950s-style design had me grinning all the way through the sequence. Anyone with a fondness for old fashioned sci-fi is sure to love the design of the Zathura game. The credits close, and we get a lengthy introduction to our two young heroes that is all at once funny, heartfelt, and real. These are not Hollywood kids spouting off constant one liners that only a highly paid screenwriter could come up with. Their conversations, their reactions, and their emotions are very real. I was reminded numerous times of fights or arguments I had with my own older brothers growing up. It's quite obvious that the filmmakers understand what it means to be a kid and do a very good job at establishing the relationships. Even after the board game is discovered, and the films starts to take a turn for the unbelievable, I was still enjoying it. Okay, maybe the fact that the kids could stand in front of an open door without being sucked out into the blackness of space, or having their heads explode due to lack of oxygen was kind of hard to swallow, but hey, it's a fantasy movie - I could deal.

But then along comes the mysterious astronaut, and he brings with him all of the film's problems. From heavy-handed messages about brotherly love that is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the groin to non-stop action sequences that become increasingly louder and incoherent, Zathura seems to lose all sense of being, and turns into an overly loud and mindless video game, much like the last movie based on a Chris Van Allsburg book, The Polar Express. The movie becomes increasingly annoying as the two kids start screaming literally every line they have with increasing volume. The kids are yelling how much they hate each other, the astronaut is screaming words of wisdom on how they have to love each other and work as a team, and the aliens are screaming incoherent gibberish as they blow up every room in the house. Everybody screams in this movie, even if there's no reason to. It's almost like half-way through production director Jon Favreau lost his hearing, and told all the actors to say their lines louder. It becomes increasingly annoying as each minute slowly ticks by, and I started to wonder where the movie I was enjoying so much just a half hour ago went.

Perhaps what's even worse is that about halfway through, Zathura stops making any sort of sense, and just expects us to go along with it. Okay, I can live with the mysterious presence of gravity and oxygen in outer space, but can someone please explain to me the climax of this film when the astronaut's identity is finally revealed? I'm going to tip toe here to avoid going into spoiler territory, but it just does not make any logical sort of sense. Wouldn't the astronaut realize what was going on the second he laid eyes on the kids? It gives us an answer, but not any sort of explanation to give the answer any sort of logic, so we are left scratching our heads rather than being delighted by the revelation. It's so out of the blue that the movie probably would have been better off without it. And what about the sister? Why is she even in the movie? She serves no purpose to the story or the plot, she's just there. Her place in the movie is equally confusing, as no one even attempts to explain to her what's going on. She just simply goes along with the fact that they're somehow in outer space being attacked by lizard men, and that the board game is responsible. Heck, they don't even tell her that the board game is responsible, she just goes along with it without even being told to. Either a scene or two got cut out, or older sister is the most trusting person in the world.

It's a crying shame that everything goes into idiot mode as the movie goes on, as there's a lot to admire. The performances, when they're speaking in normal tones, are quite wonderful all around. Young Jonah Bobo and Josh Hutcherson are obviously talented young actors, and are always believable, especially during the first half of the film. I hear Josh Hutcherson is currently acting in a film called Little Manhattan, and that he's very good. I'd like to see what the kid can do when he's not being drown out by constant yelling and special effect shots. Dax Shepard as the astronaut seems likable enough, but he's really given very little to do. He's mainly there to deliver the film's heavy-handed message of working together. He's the moral center of the film, and that's all there is. I really wish they had done more with him. As mentioned before, Kristen Stewart is completely pointless as older sister Lisa - a role that could have and should have been written completely out of the script without anything being lost. Tim Robbins is good in an extended cameo as the father, but you know he's just cashing a paycheck.

I really don't know what happened here. The movie starts out striking that rare and wonderful balance between honesty and characters we can care about with special effects and action sequences. Then, the special effects stage a hostile take over, and the movie just doesn't know what to do with itself. Maybe the filmmakers lost their nerve halfway through the production process. Maybe the screenwriters just got lazy. Or maybe Chris Van Allsburg books just don't translate well when given the big budget big screen treatment. Whatever the reason, the movie is not without its charms. I just wish those charms could have stuck around to the end. Zathura is a disappointment, not because it's a bad movie, but because the first half hints at something much greater.

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