There's this board game, you see, and it interacts with your environment. It's just that, instead of the rhino card unleashing a rhino or the stampede card causing a stampede of elephants, the meteor shower card peppers your living room with meteorites and the Zorgon card causes a race of conspicuously consumptive reptile aliens to board your house like a starship and burn everything in sight. Their starships, you see, are powered by coal, or something.
There's even a kindly older character, who played the game as a kid but got caught inside the game's universe. You know, like Robin Williams' character did in Jumanji. This time, though, the dude's an astronaut (Dax Shepard).
The impetus for the whole game-play is that Danny (Jonah Bobo) wants to play with his older brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson), but Walter's 10, and way too old to do baby things. He watches SportsCenter, you know, and he has a girlfriend. Their sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) is similarly uninterested in anything. Or anyone. She's a teenager, you see. So after their father (Tim Robbins) has to run to work (on a Saturday, the scoundrel) to print off a last-minute draft of a car concept he's designed, and after Danny has accidentally nailed Walter in the face with a baseball (causing Walter to do some really sadistic things to him in retaliation), we're left with Danny poking around the scary-ass basement. In the middle is a huge furnace that looks like Hell's maw and in a corner, tucked away, is this weird old box with the word Zathura on it.
High adventure lies within -- children's adventure, with all the formulaic running, hiding and fear-facing the genre entails. The reason certain story arcs and plot elements become formulaic -- clich & eacute;d, if you prefer -- through rehashing and overuse is that, fundamentally, they're pretty good ideas. They only become formula once they've been done over and over enough that we recognize them as they happen. We expect them. So long as a movie courts formula with creativity and panache, it'll be a pretty good movie. Not great, obviously, but enjoyable. And Zathura is a pretty good movie -- for the most part.
David Koepp (War of the Worlds) and John Kamps' screenplay rarely panders or succumbs to saccharine orations on the importance of brotherhood. Rarely isn't never, of course, and there are some really pat moments, like when Walter blames their parents' divorce on Danny, but they're tempered by other moments, like when young Danny retaliates with name-calling. Smells like my childhood, frankly.
Director John Favreau (Swingers, Made) has an excellent sense of comic timing, which gives the film buoyancy and verve. That sense of timing also helps lend urgency to the action and proximity to the danger. If nothing else, Favreau knows how deadly it is to dwell on a bad scene -- or any scene, for that matter.
And so Zathura skips along briskly, offering up clever puzzles for the brothers to solve and enough smart jokes to keep big people entertained. The boys are caught in a meteor shower and chased by a malfunctioning robot; they freeze their sister in cryogenic slumber. (These aren't spoilers -- you can gather that much from the trailer.)
Then, unfortunately, about three-quarters of the way in, Zathura runs out of ideas. The same themes (brothers aren't so bad, sisters aren't so bad, teamwork is best, imaginations hold power, we shouldn't be so wasteful of our resources, etc.) keep popping back up, almost as frequently as those damnable Zorgons, who get outfoxed once, twice, thrice, only to come back with ... wait for it ... more Zorgons! Boring. Then Zathura coasts -- languorously, in zero gravity -- to its destination.
The astronaut character, in a fit of screenwriterly nostalgia-whoring, is given a stupidly complex and inexplicable back-story that's saccharine as hell and is more full of holes than the boys' house after a long pummeling by the Zorgon mother ship. They're holes so big, your toddler will wince. Why can't the astronaut just be an astronaut?
The first hour and a half of Zathura succeeds on the terseness of Koepp and Kamps' narrative and the economy of Favreau's filmmaking. Once the ideas run out, things start to meander. Once that happens -- well, it's just about too late for the good ship Danny and Walter's House.
Zathura; Rated: PG; Directed by John Favreau; Starring Dax Shepard, Jonah Bobo, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins