Tuesday, September 8, 2009


One movie I've seen is Jumanji, but I've never actually seen it all in one sitting. I've seen the entire movie, and I remember it as a film about a magical board game, starring Robin Williams. There was lots of CG, the story wasn't great, and it never really hooked me in - so I'd always quit watching half way through. So when Zathura came along, and promised to be Jumanji in space, I wasn't too excited. Then I found out it was directed by the man behind the entirely acceptable Iron Man - Jon Favreau - so my curiosity was piqued. It might be Jumanji in space, but a reliable director is always a good sign.

The opening credits are another good sign. They're made up of neat-o 60's style artwork and a cool old-style mechanical board game. It would be easy to just do the whole thing in CGI like a boring person, but there's a loving level of detail in the mechanical object. It looks like a worn down 60's artifact. They didn't have to do that, but they did, and that is always a good sign.

Still, you know pretty much what the movie is going to be. There are two brothers - Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (John Hutcherson) - who don't really get along and compete for their divorced father Tim Robbins' attention. It's a believable setup, Walter is slightly more mature than Danny - four year age difference - and resents that Danny isn't quite on the same level as he is. Hutcherson is fairly brilliant as the older brother, trying a bit too hard to be casual, cool and grown up, and Bobo gets the younger kid jealousy down. I saw a lot of my own nephews in them, and they did a fantastic job to capture the essence of two young kids who don't quite always get each other.

Naturally, fighting siblings lead to a story about how siblings really love each other and need to be best friends. So, in comes the titular board game, coming down and making stuff explode and causing a whole lot of CG mixed with model work and lots of practical effects. Eventually Dax Sheperd shows up, both teaching a valuable lesson and being kind of a dick. Again, Hollywood proves that all people need to appreciate each other is a whole hell of a lot of explosions. If only their parents' marriage could have had some explosions in it, maybe it would have never broken up.

It's hard to really comment on the film because it does exactly what you expect it to do, and it does it in a competent way. While I would often have minor quibbles with the film - I liked it more with just two arguing brothers than I did when Sheperd shows up - but then the flaws eventually work out in a completely acceptable way and I can't imagine it without them.

In fact, the only thing I can get really passionate about is how much it loves to actually blow stuff up. There is some heavy CG, especially in the space scenes, but you get the sense that it only goes CG if it absolutely has to. Stuff actually starts on fire, things actually fly through walls. Every time there's too much CG, you want a movie like this where things actually happen. There's a lesson here, and it's that if you want a good looking movie, only use CG when you can't do it for real.

It's not high art, but it looks good and the young actors do an admirable job in their roles. It's highly predictable, but the visual fireworks are fun and it is generally well paced. It's fun, it's engaging, and you can't help but enjoy it. You can't get passionate about Zathura, but it is likable. Some days, likable will do.

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