Zathura

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As an actor, Jon Favreau has a solid everyman quality that’s earned him a surprisingly loyal fan base. His approach to Hollywood celebrity is equally unpretentious. As producer and host of IFC’s Dinner for Five, he allows audiences an insider’s view of the film industry that is both chatty and refreshingly candid.

Behind the camera, Favreau has the same understated, workingman’s attitude — and an actor’s respect for performance. His ability to keep things human gave Elf — an otherwise idiotic script — much of its charm.

Where many directors might dismiss family-friendly projects as the necessary stepping-stones to a wider Hollywood career, Favreau approaches his material with conscientious affection. His latest effort, Zathura, further demonstrates his storytelling savvy and careful attention to character relationships.

Adapted from the book by Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, The Polar Express), the film is essentially Jumanji set in outer space. As a matter of fact, the plot is almost identical: Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) are a pair of bickering brothers. When their father (Tim Robbins) has to work on a Saturday, they end up playing Zathura, an old board game Danny finds in the basement. Once the game starts, however, the family home is launched into deep space and the boys must play until the end or forever be trapped in the world of the game. Along the way they encounter wild meteor showers, lizard aliens, a deranged robot and a wayward astronaut (Dax Shepard playing it straight for a change).

Smaller in scope than its jungle-themed predecessor and absent the wild flailing of Robin Williams, Zathura takes place almost entirely in one house. Nevertheless, Favreau is surprisingly resourceful in maintaining a high level of energy and excitement, delivering well-crafted action sequences, slick special effects and a gee-whiz sense of wonder. No small feat considering the film rarely steps outside the front door.

Wisely, Favreau insisted that the film’s CGI be kept to a minimum. Inspired by Buck Rogers and the tin toys of the ’40s, Zathura’s retro sets and models delight with invention and imagination.

The unknown child-actors are likably generic, and Robbins gives his bit part just enough sincerity to be effective. Kristen Stewart, who plays the boy’s older sister, makes a big impression in a relatively minor role. It’s Dax Shepard, however, who really surprises as the film’s affably sarcastic astronaut. The sudden appearance of adults usually saps kids movies of their energy and velocity. Shepard, however, fits seamlessly into the brothers’ journey, providing just enough guidance and emotional connection to spin the story in a new direction.

But the film falters badly in its script. So much time is spent on the brothers’ sibling rivalry that the film’s sense of adventure loses momentum. The boys’ endless squabbles lack any real wit or humor and, in the end, only annoy. Worse still are the characters’ improbable reactions to their situation, contrived to serve each turn of Zathura’s illogical and confusing narrative. Despite this, Favreau keeps things moving at a sprightly pace, carefully balancing the boys’ evolving relationship against eye-popping visuals.

Next for Favreau is the massively budgeted John Carter of Mars; a sci-fi epic based on the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. He’s an unlikely choice (the story’s scope begs for someone like Peter Jackson), but with the right script and Favreau’s dedication to craft and character, the results could surprising and dazzling.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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