A movie earns instant cool points with me just for including certain elements. Among them are swordfights, superheroes, dinosaurs, scenes where the characters dance or sing to old pop songs, lasers, dragons, and jetpacks. So, I am not embarassed to admit that the main reason I wanted to see this movie is the shot from the trailer of an astronaut (Dax Shepard) blasting into the house wearing a retro-looking jetpack. Now a movie does get a free pass from me just for featuring an item from my cool factor list. It has to maintain its cool by being a good movie. "Zathura" keeps its cool.
"Zathura" is directed by Jon Favreau, who also directed "Elf" and starred in "Swingers." Favreau uses an intriguing blend of old-school movie magic and high tech digital effects to give a unique charm to the movie. It looks awesome but just "fake" enough that it could all be written off as simply a product of Danny's (Jonah Bobo) and Walter's (Josh Hutcherson) imaginations. The movie is based on a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg and is an unofficial sequel to "Jumangi" (though it is a vastly superior film with infinitely better special effects). Like its predecessor, "Zathura" is about two children playing a mysterious board game that comes to life and leads them on a thrilling adventure. The game itself looks ridiculously cool, and I really wish it had been a real game in my childhood (heck, I would play it now).
The child actors are surprisingly decent. Dax Shepard is great as an astronaut stranded in the game for fifteen years. There is a twist near the end of the movie concerning his origin that is my biggest complaint about the movie. I did not find it necessary at all. It was slightly confusing and really did not fit into the story very well. Tim Robbins makes a brief cameo as the father of the children. The movie even contains a heartfelt lesson about sibling rivalry.
I am a firm believer that all good children's stories need to be, at least a little, scary. Whether it is wicked stepmothers, flying monkeys, crazed chocolateers, Sith lords, disfigured Baby Ruth lovers, or He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named; children's stories are filled with fright. There is a certain satisfaction that comes to a child when he can watch the movie or read the book and make it through the end to see that the scary is not that scary after all. Whether the hero defeats it or one learns that the object of terror is really not to be feared, children can learn to overcome their fears along with their heroes. And as we who enjoy horror movies know, being scared is fun. "Zathura" is a great family film that contains just the right amount of scary in the form of meteors, basements, Zorgons (lizardlike aliens who eat kids), and sisters. As the children play the game, the film plays out more like a series of exciting vignettes. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time and could not stop grinning. It all made me feel like a big kid.
What do you think about this movie? What scared you most in the stories you read or the movies you watched as a kid? What elements are on your "cool" list for a movie?