2 stars (out of four)
For a kid-aimed PG-rated fantasy you could do worse than "Zathura: A Space Adventure." Now there's a ringing endorsement. You could do worse.
It's not "an interstellar delight!" but then, neither is the movie. It's a tick better than the movie version of "Jumanji," if that's any help. If you liked the book, you'll find the film of "Zathura" faithful in most respects, though not so much amplified as padded. Its spirit, however, is more abrasive than that of the original. In the original story, for example, the older brother did not use the word "bee-yotch."
"Zathura" comes from author and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, who also created "The Polar Express." Like "Jumanji," its prequel, "Zathura" concerns a magical and rather terrifying board game played by unsuspecting kids. In "Jumanji," little Peter and little Judy roll the dice over and over, and their home turns into a wildlife refuge (lions and monkeys and rhinos, rampaging everywhere). "Zathura," similar premise, with the cosmos substituting for the jungle.
Walter and Danny, siblings and rivals, begin the game not knowing the dread and wonders to follow. The first roll of the dice produces a card that says: "Meteor showers, take evasive action." Bing, bang, boom, meteors come zipping through the living room ceiling. The boys discover their house has been flung into deep space, somewhere near Saturn. Subsequent rolls of the dice lead to encounters with a malevolent robot, gravitational ker-flooeys and a black hole, which in Hollywood is known as "turnaround."
Directed by Jon Favreau ("Elf") and scripted by David Koepp and John Kamps, "Zathura" opens up the narrative to include a bee-yotchy older sister, played by Kristen Stewart, and the kids' divorced father (Tim Robbins, nice and loose). Dad is a commercial illustrator struggling to make deadline. His sons, butt-head Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and dear, put-upon Danny (Jonah Bobo), vie for his attention, while their sister lies in her bed and cranks the music. This family requires a series of life-threatening crises to bring its members closer together, and to make Walter, especially, less of a punk you'd like to see creamed by an asteroid.
The look of "Zathura" is more about models and large-scale puppets than computer-generated imagery, which is nice. Yet the film never establishes its own visual language or style. Van Allsburg's witty, stark, black-and-white pointillism gave the book a distinctive personality. Would it have killed the makers of "Zathura" to at least consider what made those illustrations cinematically tantalizing in the first place?
Knowing you're not in for anything magical, you settle back and take the movie on its own limited-payoff terms. The best thing about it is the board game itself. The close-ups of the ratty old 1950s-style game, with its tiny tin spaceship models and yellowing instruction cards, evoke more wonder than any of the kids' noisy adversaries arriving with each new roll.
'Zathura: A Space Adventure'
Directed by Jon Favreau; screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg; cinematography by Guillermo Navarro; production design by J. Michael Riva; music by John Debney; edited by Dan Lebental; produced by William Teitler, Scott Kroopf and Michael De Luca. A Columbia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:35. MPAA rating: PG (for fantasy action and peril, and some language).
Danny - Jonah Bobo
Walter - Josh Hutcherson
Astronaut - Dax Shepard
Lisa - Kristen Stewart
Dad - Tim Robbins