- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 10, 2005

If the Zorgons or that killer robot doesn’t zap poor Danny, his thuggish older brother sure will. So goes “Zathura,” a child-minded thriller based on “Jumanji,” author Chris Van Allsburg’s slim book. The battling brothers are meant to be the soul of this tech-heavy affair, but the child actors behave in such a thoroughly sour fashion you almost root for the space aliens.

Director Jon Favreau may be “so money” with such adult stars as “Elf’s” Will Ferrell, but he’s less adept with the preteen set.

Danny (Jonah Bobo) and his older brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson) spend their time with their divorced father (Tim Robbins, avuncular and real in his fleeting scenes) scrapping for pa’s attention. When their latest fight ruins Dad’s work papers, he leaves them in the care of their older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) for a spell.

While Lisa zones out in her bedroom, Danny hides from Walter in the old home’s dumbwaiter chute. That leads to the basement, where he digs up a 1950s-era game called Zathura. The lad may be weaned on video games, but the box’s metal crank and clanking sounds draw him in. As soon as the game spits out its first card, Danny discovers this is no mere board game. Suddenly, meteors are sizzling down on them from the roof, and the house itself is no longer on terra firma.

Like “Jumanji” before it, the game transports its players into a brave new world. This time, it’s light years beyond the Earth’s orbit. That doesn’t stop the siblings from slinging barbs at each other, even while dodging killer robots and lizard creatures.

Mr. Favreau solidly establishes the family dynamics in the early going, aided by Mr. Robbins. But we need a Tim Burton to push the visual envelope here. Instead, the visuals that should astound merely intrigue. The vision of an aging home lost in space should leave the kind of impact a child will remember for months, not just until the theater lights snap on.

Describing “Zathura” creates a zippier impression than actually watching it. Some action sequences dawdle; others crank up to acceptable levels.

The film improves when the board game summons a nameless astronaut (Dax Shepard) to the floating home. The “Punk’d” graduate proved film worthy in last year’s otherwise unremarkable “Without a Paddle.” Here, his natural manic quirks seem waterlogged, but he still registers as a capable hero.

“Zathura” lacks the zip of a classic children’s epic, yet at least the film strives for such distinction. It’s far more ambitious than the usual kiddie fare, with a budget and vision not content to pander to its easily pleased base.

That’s a blast from the past as welcome as “Zathura’s” old school game board.

**1/2

TITLE: “Zathura”

RATING: PG (fantasy action and perilous moments)

CREDITS: Directed by Jon Favreau. Screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. Cinematography by Guillermo Navarro

RUNNING TIME: 102 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypictures.

com/movies/zathura/splash/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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