In 1995, the still relatively new movie technology of computer-generated effects was employed to good effect in the Robin Williams-starring Jumanji, a children’s adventure flick based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg in which a board game, the titular Jumanji, could magically affect real life.
A decade on, we get another children’s adventure based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg in which a board game, the titular Zathura, magically affects real life. In Jumanji the theme was the jungle, so the young players had to cope with rhinoceroses and other such beasts. This time the game is space-based, so soon our young heroes are facing asteroid showers, robots and alien invaders.
However, whereas Jumanji was directed by the not overly talented Joe Johnson – of Honey I Shrunk the Kids fame – and relied almost exclusively on Robin Williams’ antics to tie the special effects together into some kind of plot, Zathura is helmed by a rather more accomplished director.
Jon Favreau remains best known for his acting work – from his fame-winning turn alongside Vince Vaughn in the film version of his own script, Swingers, to memorable character turns in any number of sub-par Hollywood blockbusters and comedies. He’s still, thanks to his long-term friendship with Vaughan, on the fringes of the new Hollywood ‘Frat Pack’ of comic actors – Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Steve Carell, Will Ferrell and brothers Owen and Luke Wilson.
It was as director of Will Ferrell’s 2003 hit festive comedy Elf, where the outsized comic played a human raised in Santa’s workshop as one of his little helpers, that Favreau really proved himself as a director – and one with a strange ability to appeal to children.
In part thanks to Favreau’s understanding of acting but largely due to an intelligent script from the man behind the superb genre movies Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, Toy Soldiers and Jurassic Park, this is a far superior movie to that earlier board game-goes-berserk flick.
Yet at first the similarities to Jumanji are almost overwhelming: two siblings start playing the game and find themselves immersed in a world which may or may not be real – their father’s house seemingly transported into orbit around the rings of Saturn and blasted by meteor showers – and they too come across someone who has been trapped in the game for years, this time (naturally) an astronaut rather than a poor man’s Tarzan. Yet despite being similarly over-populated with special effects, this time beautifully and seamlessly done, the various episodes are kept together largely by the central performances of the two young leads, Jonah Bobo and Josh Hutchinson, as their brotherly relationship develops through each successive trial and tribulation.
In the set-up scenes it is revealed that the boys’ parents are divorced and the family largely disconnected – each member isolated and uninterested in their closest relatives. Via the various adventures through which the boys must pass to survive, the bond of family is rekindled. This metaphor at the heart of the movie is entirely appropriate for a family film, yet subtly and cleverly done.
Thanks to Favreau’s unusual ability to coax good performances from his child actors, he has managed to create a film which parents and children alike will enjoy – and one which will hopefully wipe memories of a bearded Robin Williams running away from jungle creatures permanently from filmgoers’ minds.