Danny and older brother Walter are driving their newly divorced Dad (Tim Robbins) crazy. The kids just wish he would play with them. But when they are left in the care of their earphone-wearing teenage sister and Danny stumbles on a magic game in the basement of their musty old house, they are forced to play together for real. The house is hurled into space, zig-zagging through time, with its inhabitants inside it. They must work together to fight off monsters, robots and other intruders - and in the process learn to love one another as brothers should.
The dream-like quality of childhood role-play is captured in this movie, which feels more like a grandiose child's fantasy than a traditional sci-fi flick.
The character setup is pretty familiar: The youngest Danny isn't good at anything, unlike his podgy older brother, who can already catch balls and beat him at most games, and finds him babyish and annoying. Older teen sister Lisa (the all-American-hot Kristen Stewart) doesn't want to be good at anything, except looking good on her date tonight. They're all competing in various ways for their father's attention: Danny by whining cutely, Walter by showing off and sulking, and Lisa by lying around half dressed in bed, ignoring him.
The atmosphere is the same strange mix of gothic and suburban you'll find in popular cult classics like Donnie Darko (2001). The presence of extraordinary forces is felt too, when the game exerts its power and propels the house and its inhabitants into outer space. And this dialogue might sum up the kind of outer space this is.
Danny: Wow! Outer space! Walter: No... it's just night time. Danny: I don't know, Walter... it never looked so CLOSE before.
This is an outer space where you can breathe the atmosphere, where robots appear out of nowhere, where hungry astronauts appear at the door after floating around for years. Where a hot girl can be cryogenically frozen and not remember a thing. Not only are you forced to suspend your disbelief, but also all scientific judgement. Which works really well, just like it does on one of those dreams you wake up from really believing that you actually could fly - until you jumped off a chair and hit the ground, just like the morning before.
The awesome special effects and CGI are slick without attempting realism, but the movie doesn't rely on them. Like all great films, it relies mainly on essentials like a pacey script, believable acting and generous lashings of comedy. While both kids and adults will laugh, gasp and grip hands in the dark over the fast paced, farcical action as the kids cheat death, it might take an adult to peel back the surface and see what really is so funny about the conversations the children find time to have (while about to be sucked into a black hole). The kids are very cute - in the achingly hilarious way they innocently expose all our human foibles, and not in that revolting saccharine and much-imitated way that so many kid actors are.
Every now and again, a children's movie is so much fun that you almost wish you could have kids, just for the sake of hearing them talk. Or be a child again, so that you could play the games they do and believe they were real without being swiftly institutionalised. This is one of those movies.
Note: The premise of Zathura is similar to that of the story by the same author, Jumanji (1995), a big family hit starring Robin Williams and launching Kirsten Dunst's career. Some will compare it unfavourably to that, but if you don't mind the same ploys being repeated here and there, you should double your fun and enjoy both - Jumanji is for hire at most video stores, so if you can bear 104 minutes of Robin Williams...
- Jean Barker
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