The Queue: ‘ZATHURA’ – Great Family-Fun Available on Netflix

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

ZATHURA | 105 min | PG
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart and Tim Robbins

Gather around kids while I tell you a tale of life before the Internets and the Snapbooks and the Tinter dating tweets. When I was a youngster, our primary means of entertainment was board games. While video games were around at the time, they weren’t so prevalent as today. So, we would bust out a board game to satisfy the need to call ourselves champion over others. Games like Candy Land, Mouse Trap, Hungry Hungry Hippos, etc. gave us the chance to use our imagination, letting the board play out a scheme or story.

While board games were a lot of fun with a group of friends, it was a hellish type of trench warfare between siblings. Every misstep would get called out, every Draw Four card thrown down with authority…hard feelings were abound on every battleground designed by the Parker Brothers. In this week’s edition of The Queue, the film ZATHURA takes that sibling rivalry and puts it in the hands of a space adventure come true.

Our siblings of focus are older brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson before he went full-blown Peeta) and younger brother Danny (Jonah Bobo). While Walter is trying his best to grow up and leave his brother behind, Danny is just trying to not get left behind. They are children of divorce, have an older sister in Lisa (Kristen Stewart) who wants nothing to do with them, and are trying to spend time with a father who is trying his best to hold everything together (Tim Robbins).

When Dad has to go to work, the mischief begins as Danny finds a mysterious game in the basement called Zathura – A Space Adventure. The game has the illustration that you’d see in the 1950s and is very mechanical in how it works. Danny presses go, and gets a card that says “METEOR SHOWER. TAKE EVASIVE ACTION.” The boys duck for cover as a meteor shower happens in the living room, and they soon find out this is no ordinary game as the house now floats in space. They have to finish the game, or never go home.

Jonah Bobo, Kristen Stewart, Dax Shepard and Josh Hutcherson star in ZATHURA. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

L-R: Jonah Bobo, Kristen Stewart, Dax Shepard and Josh Hutcherson star in ZATHURA. Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

Adapted from the book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote JUMANJI and THE POLAR EXPRESS, ZATHURA takes a place of imagination and makes it literal for the protagonists. Comparisons can be drawn to JUMANJI since a board game comes to life and they have to play the game to survive, however these kids don’t have the charm of its predecessor. Walter and Danny get very annoying, very quickly. The fact that they try and use their father to get at one another doesn’t really agree with me, especially since he’s no deadbeat and is actually caring for each of his kids. All of his kids treat him like crap, and if Zathura was just him leaving his house and getting away for a while, I would’ve enjoyed it. “OH! Zathura is the secret place he goes to in his mind to get away from his terrible kids!”

The animosity between Walter and Danny is so forced that I started laughing at it, but then realized that these were possibly the most selfish kids on the planet, so a deus ex machina of a board game kicked them off of Earth to resolve their issues. For example, at one point, Danny’s turn puts Lisa in a cryogenic sleep for five turns, and Walter keeps telling him he needs to play so they can get home. OR YOU KEEP PLAYING SO YOU CAN UNFREEZE YOUR SISTER. Are these kids so dysfunctional that they don’t even think about each other when they’re clearly in danger? Again, the brotherly disdain all just seemed too forced in its presentation.

Character development aside, the movie does get fun where the game is concerned. As the game registers itself as the antagonist, it puts forth some adversaries in a malfunctioning robot and evil aliens known as Zorgons; they also get assistance after rescuing a mysterious astronaut (Dax Shepard). Directed by Jon Favreau before hitting it big with IRON MAN, the movie relies heavily on the visuals for its entertainment and it doesn’t disappoint. There are a lot more practical effects than I was expecting, and they are wise to make sure that everything stays within the confines of the game.

ZATHURA is a solid family picture that just has some trouble staying in the lines where it comes to connecting characters to the audience. However, it uses the adventure to craft something pleasing to the audience, as well as shape these kids back into a brotherly bond by the time the third act hits. Most of the fun with board games is in not knowing what will happen on your next turn. It’s more about chance than skill, and the same can be said for ZATHURA.

ZATHURA is now streaming on Netflix Instant as well as other VOD platforms. Actual game does not exist.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.