Thursday, February 09, 2006

Movie Review: Zathura

Last night I enjoyed a rare trip to the cinema with my dad. Fittingly we chose to see the current big family movie - Zathura. The cinema was nearly empty, despite this showing in screen one, and it being a Wednesday (which brings in extra people to the cinema because of the ongoing Orange Wednesdays promotion). Why do I think the cinema was so empty? One word: Jumanji.

As those with good eyesight will be able to see from the poster, the tag line for this movie is "A new adventure from the world of Jumanji." Indeed, this film is adapted from a book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote the book Jumanji was based on (along with The Polar Express). It shares the same basic premise as Jumanji too - a board game essentially comes to life and the players must complete it to escape and return their world to normal. It even includes a character who has been trapped in the game since he played it as a child, just like Jumanji. But this is NOT Jumanji 2 and, personally, I feel that the studio playing up the Jumanji connection has been a mistake. Yes Jumanji was successful, yes it spawned a fairly successful animated series - but people do not have fond enough memories of the film to want to see a sequel. Ultimately the marketing strategy seems to have been to tell the world tat the film is "A lot like Jumanji" and so people are staying away in droves.

It's sad, because Zathura is about a million times better than Jumanji ever was.

Let's start with the cast. The first thing that Zathura gets right that so many other family films gets wrong, is that they've found child actors who can act. Jonah Bobo plays six year old Danny who feels that he's constantly in the shadow of older brother Walter, played by Josh Hutcherson. Ten year old Walter blames Danny's arrival for everything that's wrong in his life, including the divorce of his father (played by Tim Robbins) and mother. Meanwhile, upstairs, is their teenage sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), a slumbering, hormonal monster. The three young actors, Bobo, Hutcherson and Stewart are completely believable as sibling. They remind me of my own family when we were young, and the two brothers remind me of my own two sons (although my sons are much younger - I think I got a glimpse of what I have to look forward to). Hutcherson is particularly good as a kid struggling with the fact that he's almost, but not quite, a teenager ("I have a girlfriend") and yet he has to spend all his time with a six year old who, in his eyes, just can't do anything. The only disappointment here is that Kristen Stewart spends so much of the film in bed or cryogenically frozen, she's an excellent young actress who really lights up the screen and it's a shame that the script doesn't allow her to do more (oh, and if you find yourself racking your brain trying to figure out what else you've seen her in like I did, she was in Panic Room with Jodie Foster and also starred in the underrated Mission Without Permission/Catch That Kid).

The plot is well paced and while predictable at times, included a twist that genuinely took both my dad and me by surprise (a rare occurence!). While the ultimate end is that the two brothers (and their sister, to a lesser extent) learn to appreciate each other, it never becomes sickly saccarine or overly sentimental.

The effects are excellent, with some really good men-in-suits for the alien Zorgons. Jumanji (hate to mention it again) was notable for it's perhaps misguided use of CGI animals at a time when the technology really wasn't up to it. Hair is hard to do in 3D now, but back when Jumanji was made it was, well, impossible, and it shows. It's interesting then that in Zathura the director has chosen to use more traditional methods to realise the creatures. That said, there are undoubtedly some excellent digital effects in here too.

I hope that word gets around that this film is much more than just another Jumanji. It's really, really good. It's exciting, it's engaging, it's well acted and directed. The effects are breathtaking. It will fire your imagination and make you wish you could explore the Universe.

To close - don't wait for this to be shown on TV, don't even wait for the DVD - go and see it where it's meant to be seen, on the big screen.

Rating: 8/10

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