I hate The Goonies. I tend to hate the genre that the film exemplifies: the screaming kids genre. That sort of film is typically just a series of set pieces that young actors scream their way through. It gives me a headache.
But I love Zathura, and that’s certainly part of the screaming kids genre. Part of the reason I enjoyed it so much is that Jon Favreau takes the time at the beginning of the film to not just sketch but really create a family life for the two young boys who will spend the rest of the movie running around and yelling. He’s not getting Freudian here (well, he sort of does, later on) but he sets up good, basic conflicts that ring true without being clichéd. He does what so few directors bother to do in kid films – he makes the child characters fully developed, and he makes you care about them.
Of course that’s just a small part of what won me over about Zathura. What sets this film apart from Jumanji – to which it’s a sort of conceptual sequel – is that Favreau doesn’t just take his spectacular visuals and spend an hour and a half smashing you in the face with them. Most films with this kind of scope beat you into submission (and don’t get me wrong – Zathura has more than its share of bombastic moments), but Favreau understands the value of suspense. Too many filmmakers want the scream of shock at a big moment but forget that the real pleasure is the squirms and screams that come in the build up.
The story is simple – two kids find a board game that, once they begin playing it, transports their whole house into space. As they play the game the events that are dictated on the cards – ‘Crewmate goes into cryosleep’ or ‘Rescue stranded astronaut’ – become literally true. The kids have to keep playing the game through to the end – and survive – to have their home returned to the way it was. Along the way Favreau creates a perfect paean to the great aspects of juvenile imagination – not just the way it’s completely unfettered and accepting, but also the way that it’s wonderfully rule based. It’s that weird dichotomy, which I rarely see captured, that makes the space adventure in Zathura feel not like an older filmmaker remembering being a kid, but what kids would actually play.
I like my kid actors rough around the edges; Dakota Fanning makes me nervous. The two lead kids here, Jonah Bobo (holy shit what a name) and Josh Hutcherson (who was the kid in Polar Express, another movie based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg), play their roles broadly but generally sweetly. Hutcherson gets annoying at times, but he’s supposed to be a bit of a pain in the ass.
The casting coup, though, is Dax Shepard as the aforementioned Stranded Astronaut. Just when you’re starting to wonder how the hell you’ll be able to deal with these kids running around like this much longer, he shows up and gives the film not only a needed center but also perfect charm. He’s a great cross between a pulp era hero, when space warriors didn’t need to have 2% body fat and bulging pecs, and a modern wise-ass. He also has that great Right Stuff twang that makes him completely believable.
It’s important that the film has that center, because Zathura is very much a special effects show. A lot of the press on the film – including my own interview with Favreau – has centered on the fact that the movie uses a lot of old fashioned effects technology, like miniatures and guys in suits. And the effects look great – a giant robot seems truly menacing and the lizard men (whose reveal is drawn out in wonderful suspense fashion) don’t seem ‘real’ in the way CGI attempts to be ‘real,’ but are ‘real’ in the way that an object actually being filmed is. But as great as the effects are, Favreau remembers that they need to be serving something else.
Spielberg is the master of that, and Favreau homages him a couple of times (the best being the moment when the front door is opened and light spills into the house. Except that instead of the kid opening it to aliens, he opens it to find that he is the alien, and discovers his home is orbiting a ringed Saturn-like planet). The best thing I can say about the film, though, is that if he homaged Spielberg more than twice I missed it – I became so wrapped up in the fun of the film that I stopped analyzing everything I was seeing.
Zathura is a wonderful movie, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in a couple of years it emerged as a family classic, taking its place alongside The Iron Giant as one of the few modern films that enrapture not only kids but also discerning adults. Favreau has done the impossible – made a screaming kids movie that I really loved.