No disrespect to director Jon Favreau, but I hope he’ll make nothing but family films for a while. He’s good at it and we need more of them — more than we need, say, another Elf, which felt like an honest kids’ movie trying to wriggle out of a grown hipster’s tight-fitting irony. Zathura is far more at ease with itself as it hurtles purposefully through the starlit void of encroaching adulthood.
Like its sister picture, 1995’s Jumanji, Zathura is based on a Chris Van Allsburg picture book about two siblings drawn bodily into the perilous world of a vintage board game. Unlike Jumanji (or last year’s The Polar Express, another Van Allsburg adaptation), Zathura isn’t concerned with breaking any new ground in the field of visual effects; it trusts Van Allsburg’s storytelling instead of trying to amp up the whispering vividness of his artistry. The tale is simple enough: Squabbling brothers Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) must learn teamwork in order to navigate their house back from the far reaches of the galaxy. Favreau manages to elevate this potentially trite setup into Cain and Abel territory without ever overstepping the genre’s bounds or gunning the thrusters into Cartoon Network hyperdrive. From a Hollywood that often settles for less in the family department, Zathura is a rarity: a stellar fantasy that faces down childhood anxieties with feet-on-the-ground maturity.