Zathura (2005) A Pale Jumanji

Zathura (film)
Zathura (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I waited seven years to watch Zathura.  In the 2005 trailer they showed a little kid asking, “What do they eat?” Dax Shepard says, “Meat.” Little kid, “That’s good.” Shepard, “Dude, you’re meat.” For some reason that particular exchange struck me as hysterically funny. Surely, I thought, a film with dialogue that funny is going to be great.

I was wrong.

To be fair the film isn’t terrible, but as the ‘spiritual’ sequel to the vastly superior Jumanji, it leaves a lot to be desired. Based loosely on the picture book of the same name, the film’s creators decided to cut out any references made in the book about Jumanji. Considering that both books were written by the same author it’s not surprising that Zathura had these references in it. But not in the film.

Presumably they were afraid that audiences would compare the new film and it’s ‘magical’ game-board setting with it’s older sibling. They shouldn’t have bothered and just left the references in. The audiences made the comparison anyway and the only people who loved Zathura were the critics. While they waxed lyrical about the film and it’s attributes, the audiences voted with their feet and the film took a 62% drop in ‘bums on seats’ by it’s second weekend.

The plot, which is very similar to Jumanji, deals with a ‘magic’ clockwork space game that draws any young players into it’s world. Zathura,the game, has the same type of rules as Jumanji. Each player must take their respective turns. After each turn, the player gets a card that tells them what their ‘fate’ is. And the same consequences can be had, as in Jumanji, in other words you can be ‘trapped’ in the game as well.

The film opens with Dad (Tim Robbins) playing baseball with his two boys.  Ten year old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and six year old Danny (Jonah Bobo) don’t get along. Dad is getting frustrated with the both of them and tells them he has a meeting to attend. Dad needs to work on a weekend to help pay to renovate the house he got when the boys mother and he separated. 

After a sequence of events that show us just how much the boys don’t get along things get worse when Danny throws something at Walter and knocks over Dad’s drink. The drink saturates the project that Dad needed for the meeting so now he has to leave even earlier. He goes upstairs and wakes daughter Lisa (Kristen Stewart , pre Twilight). He tells her to look after them and he leaves.

While Dad’s gone and Lisa sleeps upstairs Danny throws a baseball at Walter hitting him in the face. Walter chases Danny down and catches him in the dumb-waiter. Walter then traps him in it and lowers him to the basement that (like Kevin from Home Alone) scares Danny. As he escapes from the basement he finds the game.

Taking it upstairs he starts playing and the movie picks up speed and finally takes off.

Directed by a personal favourite of mine Jon Favreau (who also directed Cowboys and Aliens) the film’s pace is choppy and in some places it just down-right drags. There is one bit of the film where Lisa gets frozen for five turns. I would swear that the boys played a lot more than five turns before she finally thawed out and joined the rest of the cast. To be fair though to Lisa she does show up before then, but as she is frozen solid, she sort of resembles Stewart’s character in the Twilight saga.

The film was good, but I think Favreau was a bit too enamoured of his practical special effects in the last half of the film. The other problem was that I just flat-out did not like the older brother. He came across as a little snot for much of the film. When his character arc finally reaches the point where he likes and supports his little brother, I didn’t care.

Kristen Stewart has never been a favourite of mine, although her appearance in The Messengers in 2007 did make her, very briefly, an actress to watch. She pretty much blew that when she started the Twilight series.

*And before you ask, no I don’t like the Twilight verse. Period.*

I know that I haven’t said anything about Dax Shepard’s performance in the film. The biggest problem is that  he isn’t Robin Williams and he just felt a bit like a poor replacement. Of course, I am a huge Robin Williams ‘fan-boy’ so that might just be my problem. I have seen Shepard in other films and enjoyed his work in those. He just didn’t do anything for me in this one.

Of course the inevitable comparison between Zathura and Jumanji is going to be made, even without the so carefully removed references by the creators. Unfortunately the two films, although similar, are like riding two different rides at the fairground.

Where Jumanji was a real roller coaster of a film, Zathura was like riding on a dodgem bumper-car. Jerking and stalling and only occasionally speeding up.

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