Monday, May 22, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #166 - Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005, dir. Jon Favreau)

As a kid, I was drawn to science fiction like a moth to a flame. Star Wars premiered the same month I was born and my favorite after school entertainment in the 1980s consisted of reruns of the original Star Trek. In elementary and middle school, I scoured the shelves of my local video rental shops for science fiction movies I hadn’t seen yet. At the age of ten, I remember feeling caught between sci-fi kids’ movies like Flight of the Navigator, which left me feeling bored and unsatisfied, and classics of the genre like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I knew I was way too young to appreciate or understand fully. A few years ago, I came across Zathura: A Space Adventure and suddenly felt like I had stumbled upon a secret portal to my childhood.

Opening on a sunny summer day, Zathura sets a brisk pace and introduces us to Walter and Danny, two brothers competing for their father’s attention and fighting against the ultimate scourge of childhood: boredom. Soon, the boys learn that they will have to spend the afternoon together and younger brother Danny discovers an antiquated board game titled, Zathura: A Space Adventure. Walter reluctantly joins Danny in playing the game and almost immediately the brothers find themselves navigating a realm in which the game’s dilemmas like meteor showers, defective robots, and alien attacks feel all too real. If the plot sounds more than a little bit familiar, it’s helpful to know that the author of the source material, Chris Van Allsburg, also wrote Jumanji. This adaptation of Van Allsburg’s work blasts off into an imaginative realm of palpable risk and excitement where the 1995 movie version of Jumanji gets mired down in a swamp of muddled computer graphics and flat performances. Director Jon Favreau brings Zathura sparking to life through a reliance on practical special effects, a focus on ensemble acting with a young, gifted cast, and a script crackling with snappy dialogue. Favreau began his Hollywood career as an actor in the 1990s with a breakout role in the indie hit, Swingers, but has since switched trades and established himself as a dependable director of distinctive, successful mainstream films like Elf, Iron Man, and the recent live action version of The Jungle Book. Just as Zathura the board game offers the boys experiences with which video games and TV cannot possibly compete, this movie provides visceral thrills that far outperform the scores of contemporary family movies that lean too heavily on weak narratives and computer generated effects. Favreau taps into the heart of Van Allsburg’s book, expands the scope of the original story, and delivers one of the most satisfying family-friendly sci-fi movies of this century.  

As a book, Zathura covers just thirty pages, but Favreau targets the key elements of why it has become a modern classic of children’s literature and embellishes this adaptation with style and substance. Favreau pulls off the tricky feat of taking a well-loved kids’ book and fashioning it into a funny, boisterous movie that packs an emotional punch and succeeds on its own. In 2009, Spike Jonze attempted something similar with his take on Maurice Sendak’s almost universally adored book, Where the Wild Things Are, but ended up making a movie that bewildered audiences and bore very little resemblance to the enchanting power of the original. Zathura was Favreau’s third project as a director, but with it he established the kinetic, vibrant, and irreverent elements that would come to define his work. By infusing Iron Man and Iron Man 2 with his stylistic trademarks, Favreau set the tone for the sprawling multi-media franchise known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A lot of people missed Zathura when it hit theaters in 2005, but now is as a good a time as any to take your chances and see where this adventure will take you.

-         John Parsell

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