Proving that his success with Elf was no fluke, Jon Favreau surprises again with Zathura. While Elf had moments of questionable taste and depended to a large extent on one's general appreciation for the humor of Will Ferrell, the movie won over audiences through its genial sweetness and comparative modesty in a crass age. Previously best known as an actor and frequent collaborator with Vince Vaughn, suddenly Mr. Favreau is building steam as a family-oriented director worth watching.
Zathura (rated PG for fantasy action and peril, and some bad language), based on the children's book by Chris Van Allsburg, suffers from some rough edges, but benefits from a similar sweetness at its core, Mr. Favreau's firm command of the story, and the film's complex special effects. Parents should know, though, that there's some bad language used by kids that diminishes some of the film's positive messages.
Just as Elf opened with delightfully retro stop-motion animation, Zathura features a clever title sequence that skims over the tin contours of a 1950s-era space adventure board game.
Zathura is actually Mr. Van Allsburg's sequel to Jumanji-filmed in 1995 with Robin Williams-but Mr. Favreau and his screenwriters make no reference to that little-loved movie. Like Jumanji, though, Zathura features a magical board game that sucks its players into a very real adventure.
One afternoon brothers Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) are briefly left home alone with their older sister (Kristen Stewart) when their dad (Tim Robbins) makes an emergency trip back to his office. A morning of sibling tension escalates until the younger Danny pushes Walter to play a dusty old game he finds in the basement.
The first card the game spits out-"Meteor Shower, Take Evasive Action"-makes little sense until chunks of burning rock start crashing through the living room ceiling. What follows is fun, tightly scripted adventure.
Walter and Danny have some growing to do before they can appreciate the gift that is a sibling and return home. Mr. Favreau has a great way of integrating simple lessons unaffectedly into the plot. He also does a great job balancing clever special effects with the story.
Cut out a few unnecessary profanities, and Mr. Favreau has another winner on his hands.