Jon Favreau fascinates me. I remember when he was an actor, with aspirations towards directing. These days he’s better known as the director of big-budget features like Iron Man and The Jungle Book He produces and writes Disney+ series based on Star Wars. As far as I am aware, he is the only Star Wars producer to also have undertaken a multi-episode guest starring arc on Friends.
I think there is a crossover point between the two Favreaus, and that is his 2005 science fiction film Zathura. I do not think it is his best film – for me that remains his 2014 comedy-drama Chef, as both actor and director. I do think Zathura deserves more attention than it got at the time. It’s a breezy family adventure of a style and scale you really do not see that often any more.
Walter and Danny are young brothers who can’t get along. When they’re left alone in the house one afternoon, they find an old board game named Zathura in the basement. When they start to play, however, the events of the game start to happen in the real world. Before long they’re trapped in deep space, threatened by alien lizards and with only a mysterious astronaut to help them.
The resemblance to Jumanji (1995) is understandable, as the book which Favreau’s film adapts is the sequel to the book upon which Jumanji based. While the same film studio produced the adaptations of both books they elected to separate them completely on screen, which no narrative links between them. As a result Zathura feels like a weird duplicate of Jumanji: some kids play a mysterious board game that sends them on a thrilling adventure, even though they’re completely different kids and the games work in different genres. That in mind, it is still a better follow-up to Jumanji than either of its official sequels.
Zathura is a crossover project for Favreau because it allows him to demonstrate an ability to work on a studio project, and to successfully produce a genre film with numerous visual effects. This is his third feature as director; Iron Man (2008) was his fourth. Admittedly Zathura was a box office failure; I suspect that was less to do with the film’s quality and more to do with Columbia Pictures releasing it into American cinemas one week ahead of a Harry Potter movie.
It is a pretty slight work. It’s low on plot, and pretty low of tension as well. It does take what small story it has been given, however, and tells it with humour and integrity. The performances are solid given their constraints, but admittedly pretty unremarkable. There’s more entertainment in watching future movie stars like Kristen Stewart and Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) when they were young, than in actually enjoying them on their own merits. Tim Robbins has a brief role as Walter and Danny’s father; he’s collecting a pay cheque. Dax Shepherd is actually pretty good as the anonymous Astronaut summoned to the house by the game, and he helps lift the film’s second half considerably.
The real attraction of the film is its visual aesthetic and effects. The whole film has a nice retro style to it, drawing from both the 1950s and 1980s. There are a lot more practical effects used than digital ones, which help to make the various alien and robot characters feel more charming than they would in a lot of other similar films. The reptilian Zorgons in particular are nicely realised and visually effective, and show off an approach to physical effects in his later series The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett. Tonally the film wouldn’t feel out of place among Amblin Entertainment’s numerous 1980s family movies.
Zathura is a charming small-scale adventure film for kids. It’s certainly significantly better than Jumanji, which always struck me as highly overrated, but at the same time it’s probably not sufficiently enjoyable to break out too far from its target market. It’s a solid Sunday afternoon family movie – and there’s always a place for that.