Its unwieldy title notwithstanding, “Zathura: A Space Adventure” is arguably the best adaptation of a Chris Van Allsburg book to date. A visually resplendent adventure about two brothers and an enchanted board game that beams them into outer space, Sony’s unofficial follow-up to its 1995 hit “Jumanji” benefits from helmer Jon Favreau’s amiably low-key sense of humor and assured handling of well-trod emotional territory. Absent the star power of a Robin Williams or a “Jumanji”-sized marketing push, pricey pic looks to draw midrange rather than astronomical numbers, with better prospects in ancillary.
As evidenced in both “Jumanji” and Warner Bros.’ “The Polar Express,” the main obstacle to wresting Van Allsburg’s gorgeously imagined picture books onto the screen — aside from the author’s ineffable tone of deadpan surrealism — has been their lack of a feature-length narrative. Yet aside from the occasional lapse in pacing, screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps sustain attention for a full 101 minutes without departing significantly from the slender 32-page framework of Van Allsburg’s story.
Ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and 6-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) compete for the attention of their stressed-out father (Tim Robbins, in a brief but effective turn). After Dad takes off, putting their negligent older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) in charge, Danny finds himself stuck in the basement, where he digs up a ’50s-style space-themed board game called Zathura.
Danny begins to play the game, an ingenious wind-up contraption that comes with self-moving pieces and a metal turnkey in lieu of rolling dice. It soon becomes clear, however — after an impromptu meteor shower in the living room — that self-operation is the least of the game’s properties.
In a surreally entrancing shot that consciously echoes both “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “The Wizard of Oz,” Danny opens the front door to find their house hovering not too far from what appear to be the rings of Saturn. The brothers soon realize they must finish the game to get home safely, and subsequent turns of the key trigger an attack by a giant robot (voiced by Frank Oz); a cryonic freeze that leaves Lisa hilariously immobilized; and an invasion by a fleet of carnivorous, lizardlike aliens called Zorgons.
Along the way, they pick up a free-floating astronaut (Dax Shepard) who helps keep the Zorgons at bay and, in a clever but foreseeable twist, fits neatly into the escalating emotional drama between the two siblings. For their part, Hutcherson and Bobo excel at delivering script’s peppy banter while coming across as real live kids, their angry exchanges veering only occasionally into melodramatic excess.
“Zathura” cleaves in broad strokes to the “Jumanji” formula (two tykes play a game that teaches them life lessons while systematically destroying their house), but in every way reps a smarter, less mean-spirited and more purposeful picture than its decade-old predecessor. Still, the action — replete with explosions, fireballs, gravity fields, black holes and other situations the average 10-year-old likely would not survive — is anything but a faithful approximation of Van Allsburg’s minimalist style and may prove a mite too intense for extremely young auds.
Pic’s otherworldly setting and sentimental themes of family reconciliation place it squarely in the mold of early Steven Spielberg, as does John Debney’s score, with backup vocals by a choir of angels who work a bit too hard to cultivate a sense of childlike wonder.
Favreau’s first post-“Elf” directing project finds him very much at ease with the challenges of a larger-scale, more action-oriented family film. Relying heavily but not too heavily on CG effects, helmer displays a wizardly command of the house interiors, keeping the action tightly focused, sometimes to the point of claustrophobia, with only brief cutaways to the staggering sights just outside the window.