A decade after “Jumanji” introduced rhinoceroses to America’s living rooms comes “Zathura,” also about a board game that becomes real, and also based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg.
Van Allsburg didn’t wander far from “Jumanji” when he wrote “Zathura,” which has been directed by Jon Favreau (his family-friendly follow-up to 2003’s “Elf”). Two squabbling brothers, 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and 6-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo), are left home under the supervision of their older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), a surly, sleeping teenager. The boys find an old board game in the basement and commence playing it. Like its cousin Jumanji, the game of Zathura is literal. It’s set in outer space, and before you know it, the boys’ house is orbiting Saturn, basement and all. When they draw a card that reads, “You are visited by Zorgons,” sure enough, Zorgons come a-knockin’. (Hint: They are not friendly.) The only way to get home — or, rather, to get their home back to Earth — is to keep playing.
The game presents a variety of adventurous challenges, all of which are embarked upon from the confines of the boys’ echoey old house. (It’s not like they can ride their bikes down the street, now that “the street” is an asteroid belt.) A giant killer robot shows up, as do the aforementioned Zorgons, and so does a lost but helpful astronaut (Dax Shepard), who tries to stop the boys from fighting and keep them focused on the task at hand.
The screenplay is by John Kamps (“The Borrowers”) and the very reliable David Koepp (“Spider-Man,” “Panic Room,” “Jurassic Park”), who might be the best action-adventure writer currently working. “Zathura” zips along with speed and confidence, and though I’d never have guessed it, goofy Jon Favreau can direct a pretty exciting action scene.
The dialogue between the brothers perfectly captures the love-hate relationship that often exists between siblings, and there are two or three sly jokes for grownups that will go over the kids’ heads.
The theme of children having parent-free adventures has always been a favorite for young viewers. We like to see our parents absent in movies, not because we don’t love or need them, but because it’s fun to fantasize about how we’d manage without them. (The kids always emerge victorious in such stories, of course, with no adults necessary.) “Zathura” plays into this desire astonishingly well, giving young boys exactly what they want to see: giant robots, an astronaut, dinosaur-looking monsters, and an inattentive babysitter. Ask any 8-year-old and he’ll tell you those are four of his favorite things.
B (1 hr., 53 min.; )