Loosely based on Chris Van Allsburg's sequel to Jumanji, the movie features all-new characters, but lacks a showoff like Robin Williams taking the focus away from where it should be -- on the kids. Tim Robbins makes an appearance as "the Dad" at the very beginning, though he must be removed from the house in order for the story to really begin. The only other grown-up is Dax Shepard, at his most subdued, playing a disgruntled astronaut.
Our heroes are rival brothers Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson). Walter, approaching adolescence and determined to act older, is fiercely competitive, and would rather watch ESPN than SpongeBob. Danny still loves toys and board games, and has a vivid imagination, but in order to keep up with his brother, he has also learned how to cheat to win. It's Danny who first discovers the antique game Zathura in the basement -- a shiny board game made of tin, with a clockwork mechanism that moves the pieces and dispenses cards. Once Danny starts, outer space comes vividly to life in the form of a meteor shower, followed by the discovery that the house itself is now floating in space, in orbit around a Saturnlike planet. The game demands two players and must be completed for the boys to return home.
But that's no easy task, as each turn brings new hazards, from meteors to malfunctioning robots to the carnivorous reptilian Zorgons. In Jumanji, taking a new turn eliminated the previous turn's danger in favor of a newer one, but not so here -- Zathura favors a cumulative effect, which keeps tension building. Even though you know that winning the game will make everything fine again, the dangers in between are quite nasty. If the brothers are to finish, they have to get over their differences and work as a team.
You know it's a good sign for a children's film when Peter Billingsley is listed as a producer. Star of one of the greatest family films ever, A Christmas Story, he seems determined to find a similar tone in his work with director Jon Favreau, here and in Elf. Danny and Walter are not sugar-coated, nostalgia-tinged, idealized kids-as-remembered-by-adults; they're often quite mean, unabashedly calling one another "dick."
Some viewers may complain that the laws of physics on display here are ever-elastic. Though it's now floating in space, the house maintains its flow of gas, water, and electricity, and outer space seems to sustain a reasonable temperature and breathable air. Late in the game, an odd time-travel notion is presented that doesn't seem to make sense within normal story parameters, but one has to accept that this is essentially a child's game of make-believe, where the rules are often improvised along the way. Once you acknowledge that a board game can generate a parallel universe centering on a single house, the rest is mostly easy. If you can buy it, you'll have a blast.