Zathura: A Space Adventure (2006) 15th Anniversary Review

Zathura Review

Long before there were thoughts of a sequel which defied all logic and was actually really, really good there was another follow-up to JUMANJI. One that didn’t reprise the jungle-based adventure game itself but dared to tempt us with the idea of a shared movie universe of games which could transport us anywhere. A concept ahead of its time, perhaps, and now thanks to the ongoing blockbuster franchise likely all but forgotten. But, just for old time’s sake, let’s dust off that box, turn the key and have another round of ZATHURA!

While spending the weekend at their recently divorced dad’s new house, Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) are growing restless and bored, while their older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) is asleep in her room upstairs. When the boys’ squabbling accidentally ruins the illustration their father (Tim Robbins) is working on, he pleads with them to find a way to get along while he pops to the office to print out a replacement. Finding a dusty old board game, Danny decides to start playing, with astonishing consequences.

Adapted from the children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote JUMANJI and THE POLAR EXPRESS, ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE follows a same but different path to the 1995 Robin Williams classic. Only this time instead of bringing the African jungle to the suburbs of Brantford, New Hampshire, Zathura – a delightfully retro rocket-themed game takes Walter and Danny’s house into outer space.

Directed by Jon Favreau – his third feature following MADE and ELF, this is the film he made before hitting the big time with 2008’s IRON MAN. In many ways, if you were to draw a line between ELF and IRON MAN, ZATHURA would naturally fall at the exact stylistic midpoint between the two. It retains the former’s sense of whimsy and wonder, an irresistible childlike delight at the magical possibilities but it combines it with a keen understanding for action, set-pieces and the wry sense of humour that would bring such vitality to the first movie in the MCU.

Largely ignored at the time of release, now – on its 15th Anniversary – the movie is ripe for rediscovery and reappraisal. The young cast are wonderfully watchable, especially up-and-coming stars Josh Hutcherson and Kristen Stewart, each of them still years away from the blockbuster franchises which would cement their stardom. It’s beautifully paced and overall a more well-balanced action adventure than JUMANJI because it’s not in the thrall of a grandstanding central performance. In ZATHURA, the story is the star and it’s a cracker.

One of the chief delihgts is in the largely practical effects work, a deliberate choice of Favreau’s to bring a sense of reality to the outlandish outer space stylings of the whole piece and evoke a more natural, authentic performance from his young cast. The film was largely shot in chronological order to enable the gradual – and occasionally sudden – demolition of the house to take place. “Real” space harpoons crash through real walls. Gas pipes explode with real flames. When the robot malfunctions, it’s a genuine life-size animatronic designed by – who else? – Stan Winston, who also brings the reptilian alien Zorgons to life.

If, like me, you were always more of a sci-fi kid than an outdoorsy adventure type you might even find yourself (whisper it) preferring ZATHURA to JUMANJI. Both are, of course, great but ZATHURA’s more linear story makes for a more directly thrilling ride. There is an attempt at some temporal hijinks at one point in the story involving a heroic astronaut (Dax Shepard) but it’s the one part of the film that doesn’t quite work.

A brilliant concoction of world-building, family fun, superb special and practical effects work and a perfect sense of pace and timing, it’s a mystery why ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE wasn’t a box office and cult hit on a par with its stablemate JUMANJI. Maybe now, fifteen years later, this old-school crowd-pleaser will finally blast off to the dizzying heights it deserves.

Score 8