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.