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November 07, 2005

Zathura: A Space Adventure

The Ghost In The Machine
Howl’s Moving Castle Meets Jumanji

Df00396 By Cole Smithey

Based on the children’s book by author Chris Van Allsburg ("Jumanji" and "The Polar Express"), "Zathura: A Space Adventure" is an example of why "deus ex machina" is one of the seven deadly sins of screenwriting. However, Jon Favreau shows confidence in the directing style of his third feature film (after "Made" and "Elf." Ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson), his 6-year-old rival brother Danny (Jonah Bobo) and their teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) are spending divorce visitation time with their father (Tim Robbins) when Danny discovers a ‘50s styled, pressed tin, wind-up board game called "Zathura." With daddy away on an errand, the boys begin playing the game that involves two racing tin rockets and a slot where cryptic message cards are ejected. A house-penetrating meteor shower initiates the children’s journey into outer space with their uprooted house serving as a spaceship where a defective robot, alien lizard creatures and a Gen X astronaut stranger (Dax Shepard) conspire to appease the sibling rivalry between the brothers.

Working from Allsburg’s 32-page children’s story, screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps performed considerable narrative stuffing in order to achieve anything resembling a 90-page screenplay, and it shows. The movie starts on a promising note with an amusing family introduction sequence where Tim Robbins commands the film as a consummate father figure overseeing his competitive young sons while attempting to tend to his job duties as a graphic illustrator. Robbins makes such a strong impression as a devoted dad that the quirky space adventure that follows can’t live up to its promise as a fountain of life lessons for children, ala "E.T."

The crux of the story’s many defects lay in the nature of the Zathura game that functions as a video game-type narrative device that’s all too similar to that of films like "Doom." Similar to the crystal ball centerpiece of "Jumanji," the Zathura board game delivers foreboding messages that arrive whenever a player presses its red "go" button that begins another turn. The messages invariably precede a disastrous event, but Walter and Danny can only choose to exacerbate their inter stellar problems by continuing to play a game that puts them in increasing physical danger.

The unsupervised children are, in essence, taken hostage to a remote location where they must survive under the clandestine advice of an unseen source. One reading of the situation infers a chat room environment where the sudden appearance of a stranger astronaut is not a moment of salvation, but rather one of intimate threat. Walter’s vociferous contempt toward the astronaut hints at the fact that something is clearly not right about the stranger’s dubious presence.


The boys’ chaperoning older sister Lisa is incapacitated early on in the adventure when she’s cryogenically frozen in her underwear. Lisa’s scantly clad comatose aspect may fulfill some lurking boyhood fantasy on the screenwriters’ part, but it calls attention to itself as something perverse and superfluous to the story.

Lisa’s incapacitation leaves Danny and Walter alone to develop their growing hatred and jealousy even as they float aimlessly in space under the constant attack of firebombing Zorgon aliens in Buck Rogers-styled rockets. Relief seems to arrive when the game board issues a wish-on-a-star card to Walter who ridiculously wishes for a football signed by Brett Farvre instead of taking advantage of the opportunity to restore the family’s ordered earthbound existence. The perfidy in the children’s lack of fear, and their refusal to bond under enormous outside threat, emphasizes the film’s deus ex machina device, of narrative spitting message cards, that put the audience in a thankless role of waiting for the cavalry to arrive.

"Zathura: A Space Adventure" is a mediocre children’s movie based on the reworking of an already faulty formula (see "Jumanji") generated by the same author. It comes at a time when "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit" is dominating screens as a far superior children’s film. Better to see "Wallace & Gromit" twice than subject your children to this lesser model cinema entertainment.

Rated PG. 101 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)


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