Zathura was a lot of fun at times but overall not very memorable. I know I wasn't the target audience, and I realized early in the film that I was probably too old to enjoy everything properly. I saw the movie at the opening night of Fantastic Fest, and it received plenty of laughs and applause.
I'm sure kids would like Zathura. In particular, little boys would like it. The movie makes no attempt at all to appeal to women—the one female in the film spends half the movie as a frozen statue. Zathura is all about the boys and what they do when they're on their own, with no parents or females in their way.
The movie has been adapted from a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg, along the same general lines as his previous book Jumanji. Because we've been inundated with trailers for this movie, and because most of us have heard of Jumanji, we know the basic plotline of Zathura. Two bickering brothers start playing a mysterious old board game that they find in the cellar, and realize that the actions represented in the game are actually occurring in their lives. This time, it's an outer-space game. A game card representing a meteor shower means that meteors start falling on the house, which has been uprooted and transported to the depths of space. When can they go home? When they finish the game.
Zathura is a standard family movie, which means that the boys are obviously going to have to learn to work together in order to finish the game and return home. They get some assistance from a passing astronaut. They accidentally petrify their older sister, and even when she returns to normal she's of little use except for the usual female screaming and swooning. The lesson does seem to be hammered home without a whole lot of subtlety. At times it seemed like events were occurring just so the kids, or the kids in the audience, could learn their lesson a little bit more.
However, the moral of Learn to Play Nice is sugar-coated with some wonderful special effects. Director Jon Favreau has said that he tried to use non-CGI effects when possible so the actors would react more realistically. The spaceship, robot, and general space effects all have a wonderful retro look to them. Personally, I winced every time something happened to the lovely house and its gorgeous wood interiors, which probably puts me firmly in the grownup category.
The one flaw in the special effects was with the aliens. I actually think it would have been preferable if we never saw the aliens close up; maybe just in silhouette. Aliens in film all seem to have the same look, and they're not particularly scary, and I almost always feel like I'm looking at a rubber mask. Stan Winston Studios did the effects, and perhaps I'm jaded by the general look of their creatures? I don't know.
I am a fan of tiny, marvelous effects: the moment in which the little chip of flying meteor burns a hole in the game card that one of the kids is holding is probably my favorite moment in the film. (I'm sorry it showed up in the trailer and hope that doesn't diminish the effect in the movie itself.)
The movie is at its best for children and grownups when the astronaut, played by Dax Shepard, shows up on screen. Shepard is an ideal casting choice; not too well-known on sight to make his appearance ridiculous (unlike Robin Williams in Jumanji), and continually entertaining without having to mug for the camera. The kids are also well-cast, but I have to wonder what in the world Tim Robbins was doing in the film. He was fine, but it was a small role that any actor could have played. IMDb says that Frank Oz voiced the robot, which I didn't catch when I saw the movie; is my Muppet radar flagging?
And the product placement seemed a little obvious at times. One of the kids wears a shirt with an trendy Ugli doll on it, which is shown repeatedly and to great effect. The astronaut eats a lot of deli stuff with blatant Whole Foods wrapping. Also, I kept wondering who the big Bullitt fan was who was involved with the film, because a large poster for that film was prominent in a number of scenes. I love any opportunity to see Steve McQueen, but it seemed unnecessary and not in character with the film.
Jon Favreau's last directorial effort was Elf, which was popular with a wide range of people. Friends kept saying "I know, it looks silly, but give it a chance," and it turned out to be a quite nice family Christmas movie (with a great soundtrack), the kind of movie you can watch with practically anyone.
Zathura is a good solid family film: geared more towards kids, but offering some enjoyment and little irritation for adults. That's such a rare thing these days—so many "family films" are grating and intolerable for anyone over the age of ten—that I feel like I ought not to complain too much about Zathura's few shortcomings. I don't especially want to see the movie again, but if circumstances warranted it, I wouldn't mind a bit.