Brothers, am I Right?
Zathura: A Space Adventure
To the surprise of at least myself (back in 1995 when it came out), Jumanji was a hit. I saw it, I was unimpressed, but I was clearly in the minority as the $65 Mil budgeted film brought in a cool $262.8 Mil at the Box Office. That was largely on the backs of two factors: one, Robin Williams, and two, cool CGI animals. The film was packed with action and had a lot of sights and sounds you really could get outside of a Jurassic ParkWhile ever kid has dreams of seeing dinosaurs, Michael Crichton gave that dream a reality, at least on paper. His two Jurassic Park books spawned a movie franchise that's gone five movies strong (with no signs of slowing down), all because people love seeing dinosaurs made flesh. film. That was enough to make what could have been a weird little bomb into a big smash success.
Why a weird little bomb? Well, if you go back and watch it the film is pretty threadbare. Outside of a game performance from Williams (who, frankly, could sell just about any film when he brought his manic energy), the film is a pretty ho-hum family friendly actioner. The premise is interesting -- kids accidentally unleash jungle hell from a board game -- but the execution always felt like it as missing something. It needed a better script, a better director... well, better everything, honestly. Still, the film made enough money to warrant a sequel, no matter how many years it took. You know the one I'm talking about. No, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. The other one. Zathura.
Written by David Koepp and John Kamps and directed by Jon Favreau (who was still three years out from directing Iron Man), Zathura: A Space Adventure is a fairly removed sequel to 1995's Jumanji. It's called a spin-off or a standalone sequel because, aside from a magical board game, the film has nothing to do with the previous movie. There's no reference to Alan Parrish, no mention of animals coming out of a board game to terrorize a town. It just works on the latent idea that, "hey, what if board games could terrorize children but, you know, in a fun way." The movie does push the concept of magical board games forward and does a lot with its ideas. Sadly, it just wasn't a hit, reaping only $65 Mil against it's $65 Mil budget. That's bad returns for what should have been a big, series extension. Maybe they should have called it "Zathura: Sequel to Jumanji."
Frankly, the two films are pretty far removed from each other no matter how much you feel magical board games can exist in the same universe. One was a fantasy adventure with jungle animals. The other is very committed to its sci-fi trappings, including robots, aliens, time travel, and a whole lot of the open expanse of space. I appreciate how disconnected from the previous film this movie is as it allows Zathura to stand on its own. This feels like a very different movie which means it can set it own expectations for the adventure. Despite this, though, the movie seemingly lacks broad scope for its adventure. It's basically a bottle episode of a movie trapped around a board game. It's fun, and kind of cool at times, but for a film that should give us a titular magical space adventure, Zathura: A Space Adventure doesn't really manage to live up to that promise.
The film is focused on two brothers, Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo), who just can't get along. Walter is the older of the two and he absolutely hates his younger brother, finding the kid to be an annoying baby. He blames his brother for their parents getting a divorce and would love nothing better if the kid simply went away. Danny doesn't understand why his brother hates him so much and just wants someone to play with. Sadly, the two are trapped in their house together when their dad (Tim Robbins) has to go to work on the weekend to deal with business matters. That leaves Danny to figure out something to do and, right on cue, he finds a mysterious board game, Zathura, in their basement.
Setting up the big, metal board, Danny turns a key, pushes a button, and his little rocket ship automatically moves on the board. A card pops out warning about an impeding meteor shower and then, wouldn't you know, a meteor shower comes cascading down into their living room, destroying much of the furniture. Walter then has to turn the key and play because ignoring the board game won't fix things: by playing Zathura their house has launched itself into space. The only way to get back to their home on Earth is to ride the adventure out with all the twists and turns it'll take.
In concept I liked Zathura. I liked the idea of taking a magical board game and riding the adventure into space. Certainly that's more interesting than just taking another trip into the jungles (although, credit to Welcome to the Jungle, that film did find a way to extend the concept in a different direction). Space opens up a wide variety of adventures the kids could have experienced, tales of distant planets, aliens species, and all kind of strange wonders to behold. Sadly the film doesn't really buy into any of that. Whether constrained by the budget or just the bounds of the original book (as there was also a Zathura book), Zathura: A Space Adventure keeps things locked into the house with the board game.
Hey, I get why you would do this: keeping things to the house means you only have to setup one sound stage with a bunch of green screens and let the CGI do the work. It's cost effective and easy to handle when your lead actors can only be on set for a limited amount each day (child labor laws being what they are). But there's potential in the concept that, by keeping the adventure locked to a single house via a "bottle episode", that Zathura can never meet. There's the promise of space and exploration, but all we get are a few screen saver backgrounds against a green screen, and a couple of CGI creatures. That's not enough.
The bigger flaw, though, is that the people we're stuck with for this adventure are just obnoxious. Walter is an aggressively asshole-ish older brother, to the point that I just wanted him ejected out into space, never to be seen again (sadly he's saved the one time this happens). Danny, meanwhile, cute to the point of being twee, but without any discernible real personality. There is no chemistry between the two young leads, and by the end of the film you end up hating both of their characters, a real problem when they're the leads. There are solid actors you want to watch in here from Tim Robbins as the dad, Dax Shepard as an astronaut sucked into their adventure, and Kristen Stewart as the older sister to the boys, Lisa. When these characters are on screen the film becomes much more interesting and lively, but each get relegated out for whole sections, leaving us just with the boys and their constant bickering.
And, frankly, the film takes a lot of narrative short cuts with the story. The point of the adventure, even if the boys don't realize it at the time, is to get Walter to like his little brother. That happens, but it hardly feels earned. You can't really say Walter learns anything on his adventure because he doesn't really change. He learns what will happen if he hates his brother and wishes him away (due to the power of magic) but it's just a concept he witnesses third hand. It's not like Ebeneezer Scrooge going on a "what if" adventure; Walter is just told, "hey, don't be a dick," and eventually he says, "fine, I guess."
We also don't learn just why Walter thinks little Danny ended their parent's marriage. The best we get is a "everything was fine until you came around," but Danny (if we go off the age of the actor) was eight. That mens there was a lot of time in there for the marriage to dissolve without it all being Danny's fault. As much as Walter calls him a baby, Danny isn't that young. Whatever happened in the marriage (which we don't see because this film takes place over a single day and the mom is never even shown) can't easily be put on anyone. Thus, again, when Walter gets over his bullshit and finally appreciates Danny, the decision feels hollow. He blamed Danny for the divorce and then doesn't, but we don't feel that change.
Frankly, feeling things is not this film's strong suit. What it can deliver is a lot of little action sequences punctuated with a few decent jokes. The film manages to nail that, but that's about it. It lacks heart, and soul, and real adventure. It's a simple, scaled down adventure set somehow in the world of Jumanji, and it does allow kids to waste an hour and a half. Whether the kids, or their parents, will want to revisit Zathura: A Space Adventure is a matter of taste, but considering it's weak Box Office, and the fact that it's generally ignored now when discussion of Jumanji comes up, it's pretty clear how the general public feels. Zathura: A Space Adventure is an amusing movie at times, but it's hard to consider it anything less than a massive misfire for a burgeoning franchise.