Skip to main content

Zorgons are the lizardmen. They eat meat and we are MEAT!


Zathura
(2005)

This is the forgotten movie Jon Favreau made between Elf and Iron Man. I would have said “little”, but it wasn’t especially cheap and it bombed at the box office. Yet it proved Favreau as a versatile director who could handle special effects, and was instrumental in getting him the Iron Man gig. As a kind-of sequel to Jumanji (both derive from children’s books written by Chris Van Allsburg), Zathura illustrates what happens when a studio lets too much time pass by, and then stumbles into trying to repeat earlier success with little idea why they are doing it. At the same time, it’s a highly enjoyable failure.

Jumanji was a significant hit, but also very expensive. It had Robin Williams attached to it, which at the time made it likely to at least open to solid business. But it wasn’t all that good, with journeyman Joe Johnston rather overwhelmed by the extravagant special effects. A curious footnote is that both directors of this “franchise” went on to call the shots on Marvel movies.

The illustrated book Jumanji is based on was first published in 1991, and had the curious hook of wild animals and jungle delights materialising as players progress round a magical board game. Presumably Van Allsburg had cash on his mind, as he came up with his sequel seven years after Jumanji was turned into a film (in 2002) and while another adaptation was in progress (The Polar Express). Like Thomas Harris, but with less consumption of human brain matter, Van Allsburg returned to the well of his most famous property. But this time he came up with a game with science fiction/space fantasy elements.

This might be one of the reasons the movie failed to catch on; Jumanji was very much a “family” film (it had Robin Williams in it!) but Zathura is for boys. The sister (Kristen Stewart) spends most of the film asleep or frozen, enabling the two brothers to learn to get along. Jonah Bobo is the younger brother, a sports-shy creative type, while Josh Hutcherson is the future-jock who finds Jonah a constant pain (Hutcherson’s square-jawed density certainly lends him to less cerebral roles). When Bobo finds the titular game in the basement, it isn’t long before play begins and they find their house adrift in space. Each move brings new dangers, be it meteor showers, carnivorous lizards or defective robots.

With a core set to work on but extensive special effects to incorporate, Favreau commendably keeps things as practical as possible. There’s a winning immediacy to the explosive carnage wreaked on the house, and it’s nice to see prosthetics and model work instead of CGI. He also extracts solid performances from his junior cast; there’s much shouting, Goonies-style, and Bobo’s inexperience is sometimes noticeable, but their relationship is well-realised. There’s even a twist that doesn’t make any sense but underpins their “arc” (so it’s almost excusable).

Tim Robbins plays the dad, Dax Shepard an astronaut. The former bookends the film, and he successfully smoothes over some rather laboured establishing scenes. The latter brings his usual dazed gopher demeanour to the proceedings, but is much less annoying than usual.

It’s noticeable how tepidly children’s book adaptations tend to be received if they aren’t Harry Potter or Dr Seuss. The likes of this, City of Ember and The Spiderwick Chronicles are much better than their box office would suggest. Perhaps kids don’t want to watch other kids as protagonists any more (although its debatable how much this was ever so). Favreau’s has made a likeable fantasy that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and one that’s superior to his recent uninspired efforts Iron Man 2 and Cowboys and Aliens.

*** 

Popular posts from this blog

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.

I don’t think Wimpys still exist.

Last Night in Soho (2021) (SPOILERS) Last Night in Soho is a cautionary lesson in one’s reach extending one’s grasp. It isn’t that Edgar Wright shouldn’t attempt to stretch himself, it’s simply that he needs the self-awareness to realise which moves are going to throw his back out and leave him in a floundering and enfeebled heap on the studio floor. Wright’s an uber-geek, one with a very specific comfort zone, and there’s no shame in that. He evidently was shamed, though, hence this response to criticisms of a lack of maturity and – obviously – lack of versatility with female characters. Last Night in Soho goes broke for woke, and in so doing exposes his new clothes in the least flattering light. Because Edgar is in no way woke, his attempts to prove his progressive mettle lead to a lurid, muddled mess, one that will satisfy no one. Well, perhaps his most ardent fans, but no one else.

It looks like a digital walkout.

Free Guy (2021) (SPOILERS) Ostensibly a twenty-first century refresh of The Truman Show , in which an oblivious innocent realises his life is a lie, and that he is simply a puppet engineered for the entertainment of his creators/controllers/the masses, Free Guy lends itself to similar readings regarding the metaphysical underpinnings of our reality, of who sets the paradigm and how conscious we are of its limitations. But there’s an additional layer in there too, a more insidious one than using a Hollywood movie to “tell us how it really is”.

The voice from the outer world who will lead them to paradise.

Dune (2021) (SPOILERS) For someone who has increasingly dug himself a science-fiction groove, Denis Villeneuve isn’t terribly imaginative. Dune looks perfect, in the manner of the cool, clinical, calculating and above all glacial rendering of concept design and novel cover art in the most doggedly literal fashion. And that’s the problem. David Lynch’s edition may have had its problems, but it was inimitably the product of a mind brimming with sensibility. Villeneuve’s version announces itself as so determinedly faithful to Frank Herbert, it needs two movies to tell one book, and yet all it really has to show for itself are gargantuan vistas.

Give poor, starving Gurgi munchings and crunchings.

The Black Cauldron (1985) (SPOILERS) Dark Disney? I guess… Kind of . I don’t think I ever got round to seeing this previously. The Fox and the Hound , sure. Basil the Great Mouse Detective , most certainly. Even Oliver and Company , so I wasn’t that selective. But I must have missed The Black Cauldron , the one that nearly broke Disney, for the same reason everyone else did. But what reason was that? Perhaps nothing leaping out about it, when the same summer kids could see The Goonies , or Back to the Future , or Pee Wee’s Big Adventure . It seemed like a soup of other, better-executed ideas and past Disney movies, stirred up in a cauldron and slopped out into an environment where audiences now wanted something a touch more sophisticated.

Monster nom nom?

The Suicide Squad (2021) (SPOILERS) This is what you get from James Gunn when he hasn’t been fed through the Disney rainbow filter. Pure, unadulterated charmlessness, as if he’s been raiding his deleted Twitter account for inspiration. The Suicide Squad has none of the “heart” of Guardians of Galaxy , barely a trace of structure, and revels in the kind of gross out previously found in Slither ; granted an R rating, Gunn revels in this freedom with juvenile glee, but such carte blanche only occasionally pays off, and more commonly leads to a kind of playground repetition. He gets to taunt everyone, and then kill them. Critics applauded; general audiences resisted. They were right to.

It becomes easier each time… until it kills you.

The X-Files 4.9: Terma Oh dear. After an engaging opener, the second part of this story drops through the floor, and even the usually spirited Rob Bowman can’t save the lethargic mess Carter and Spotnitz make of some actually pretty promising plot threads.

Three. Two. One. Lift with your neck.

Red Notice  (2021) (SPOILERS) Red Notice rather epitomises Netflix output. Not the 95% that is dismissible, subgrade filler no one is watching but is nevertheless churned out as original “content”. No, this would be the other, more select tier constituting Hollywood names and non-negligible budgets. Most such fare still fails to justify its existence in any way, shape or form, singularly lacking discernible quality control or “studio” oversight. Albeit, one might make similar accusations of a selection of legit actual studio product too, but it’s the sheer consistency of unleavened movies that sets Netflix apart. So it is with Red Notice . Largely lambasted by the critics, in much the manner of, say 6 Underground or Army of the Dead , it is in fact, and just like those, no more and no less than okay.

Oh hello, loves, what year is it?

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (SPOILERS) Simu Lui must surely be the least charismatic lead in a major motion picture since… er, Taylor Lautner? He isn’t aggressively bad, like Lautner was/is, but he’s so blank, so nondescript, he makes Marvel’s super-spiffy new superhero Shang-Chi a superplank by osmosis. Just looking at him makes me sleepy, so it’s lucky Akwafina is wired enough for the both of them. At least, until she gets saddled with standard sidekick support heroics and any discernible personality promptly dissolves. And so, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings continues Kevin Feige’s bold journey into wokesense, seemingly at the expense of any interest in dramatically engaging the viewer.

What about the panties?

Sliver (1993) (SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct , but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it. Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare ( Clear and Present Danger , Salt ) also adept at “smart” smaller pict