Although I am a fan of The Goonies (not certain if it's nostalgia or whether the film is actually any good), I'm not a particularly big fan of kiddie adventure flicks in general. Jumanji was passably entertaining, and Zathura is a spiritual successor to that film. Directed by the man at the helm of the upcoming 'looking quite good so far' Iron Man, Jon Favreau, I found Zathura to be an excellent and underrated film.
Zathura centres around two young kids, Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Joss Hutcherson), who are always quarreling, as siblings tend to do. When their dad (Tim Robbins) leaves them at home under the 'care' of their slumbering older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart), Danny comes across an old board game called Zathura. He starts to play the game, and the two brothers find their entire house transported into space, with events described by the game actually taking place. These events include the likes of a malfunctioning killer robot, a meteor storm, and a raid by vicious aliens called Zorgons. Danny and Walter learn that they need to finish the game in order to get back home, but to do so will require them to survive everything the game throws at them as well as survive their personal squabbling. Along the way they gain the help of an 'Astronaut' (Dax Shepard) who winds up in the house during one turn of the game.
The story itself is straightforward, but it's in the execution that Zathura shines. It's well written, with characters who feel genuine and character interactions that ring true, particularly when it comes to the squabbling. The way the kids' problems are entwined into the story comes across as natural instead of forced. The story is also well structured, with just enough set-up between set pieces and with a genuine sense of growing peril as the stakes keep getting raised. The events that occur are also quite imaginative and entertaining while being true to the premise of 'board game' logic. A lot of the credit should go to Favreau - the overall aesthetic and tone are perfect for this kind of story. The adventure is tense and dangerous but still fun, and a lot of the action feels very 'grounded in reality' thanks to his restrained approach and use of miniatures instead of CGI. The effects are fantastic in their relative simplicity - in the age of fast cutting and dynamic camera moves, it's nice to just be able to look at something for a change. And finally, the performances are very good, particularly from the two young leads who are completely un-self conscious and natural, and don't give off that annoying child prodigy vibe. Dax Shepard is also charismatic as the astronaut with a secret.
Zathura is an excellent film by any standard, and succeeds brilliantly at what it sets out to be - an entertaining, exciting, and charming adventure story. The film confirms that Favreau is a very talented filmmaker who can handle effects heavy films with ease without sacrificing story and character, which bodes well for Iron Man.