1995’s Jumanji was a magical film in many ways: The effects
were fantastic, the attention to detail- going so far as to recreate
some of the more memorable pages from the book- was superb, both
Kirsten Dunst and Bonnie Hunt were likable, and above all it was a
family film that adults could enjoy too. It’s sort-of-sequel Zathura
is the exact opposite on nearly all counts (Well Dunst and Hunt don’t
appear, but I’m pretty sure I still hate them both.) and it has
the gall to make one long for Robin Williams.
Danny and Walter are brothers with nothing in common. Danny’s
wide-eyed hero worship of Walter is a source of annoyance to the older
boy, but less so than Walter’s complete general contempt for his
younger brother on all counts. But, when their overstressed father (Tim
Robbins, slumming it seems) leaves them alone for the afternoon and
Danny finds a magical space-themed board game, the boys learn touching
lessons while avoiding death lizards.
The similarities to the predecessor are obvious, but plot is all
they share. This film is scary, intense, and nerve-wracking for young
ones while being boring and visually flat to adults. The poster (right)
is about as eye-popping as it gets. Effects and animatronics are freely
stolen from the opening titles of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Farscape, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (both versions) while script elements are cannibalized from The ABC Afterschool Special among other sources. I’m not expecting utter originality here but, some masking of the thievery would be welcome.
The film itself is uneven, the characters of the sister and the
astronaut seem shoe-horned in but only when it’s convenient to the plot
(Do the boys routinely forget the existence of their older sister for
long stretches of time?) and even then to awkward and somewhat
unsettling effect. The astronaut specifically (played by former Punk’d
actor Dax Sheppard) seems to exist as a father figure, older brother,
sage, scholar, frat boy, love interest, voice of reason, prophet and
journeyman at various points through the movie, and frankly Shepard
doesn’t have that much range. And, his subplot is… disturbing and
inane and ultimately without value save to really unnerve and confuse
the older folks in the crowd.
Ultimately though, what most will notice is that this is not light
fluffy kid fare. It’s loud, disturbing, scary, intense, dark, and
angry. But, there’s a warm, squishy family core so families will go and
kids will cry. I honestly couldn’t figure out why the kids on screen
weren’t bawling with all they were put through. From an adult
standpoint, it’s simply boring because you’ll know every beat they’ll
hit and in which order. Worse, you won’t care at all how they get
For a movie with so little original plot (Take Jumanji, cut
jungle theme replace with space) it takes a remarkably long time to set
everything up. And that’s time that kids will grow restless and adults
will grow irritated. Once the action kicks up, parents and kids will be
screaming for totally different reasons.
Neither visually nor mentally invigorating, Zathura is a
sequel without heart. It tries in it’s heavy-handed way to deliver an
up-with-siblings thrust but merely proceeds in nearly murdering small
children and doing incredibly confusing things with time and the laws
of physics. It made me long for the days of monkey’s and a
quipping Robin Williams swinging in to save the day which may be the
most damning thing I’ve ever written about a movie ever. C/C-
A NOTE ABOUT THE BOOKS
Both Jumanji and Zathura are very different from their
film adaptations. Both films have plots that do not appear in any form
in the books and both work as films to varying degrees of not-so-much.
But, they are much better as books. I implore you, go to the library
and not the movie theater to see these children’s classics (Well, the
sequel less so) in their true form.
Either way you should know this, author Chris Van Allsburg was evidently as disenchanted with the concept of Zathura as I was as the book ends with an obvious author abort. My guess is that he was asked, after the success of the Jumanji and Polar Express film adaptations, to write a new book as a Jumanji
sequel. Thinking the idea appalling, but under contract, he used the end
of the first book and it’s entire plot to concoct a hastily thrown
together sequel, Zathura. But, while writing he realized how
bad it was and ended it in an unfulfilling way (hinted at in the film)
and was done with the whole affair. Hence the 20-year gap between the
writing of the books.
And the books are still better: No Robin Williams, Bonnie Hunt, Kirsten Dunst, Astronaut, Sisters or squick-inducing subplots.