"Zathura," based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg (also author of "The Polar Express" and "Jumanji"), introduces us to 6- year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson), who live in a constant state of war with their sullen older sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart). When their divorced father (Tim Robbins) is unexpectedly called to work one day, he asks Lisa to run the house. She locks herself upstairs. The boys battle downstairs. It's another day in sibling hell.
In the basement, Danny discovers Zathura, an old-fashioned board game, mostly made of tin, with a windup key, a "Go" button and a miniature spaceship that whirs along the game board. Failing to get his brother interested, Danny starts it up himself. That little spaceship springs to life and -- ding! -- up pops a card with a message: "Meteor Shower -- Take Evasive Action."
Moments later, the house is bombarded with real meteors. Looking through the burning Swiss cheese that is now their roof, the brothers realize they are intergalactic passengers in their own home -- which has been propelled into outer space. They have no choice but to continue playing the game.
"Zathura" salutes the low-tech magic that lurks inside a board game -- that hidden ability to bring people together. Although director Jon Favreau employs an arsenal of modern weapons -- digital effects, miniature models, robots and computer-generated imagery -- he makes sure the technology never overruns the story or its characters.
The movie has an almost antique charm, which recalls the 1950s sci-fi movies in which actors in silver suits pretended to be aliens. The Zathura game looks like something hauled out of a Cold War-era basement. This handmade feel gives "Zathura" an appealing, childlike sense of wonder, an element too often forgotten in movies with many times the budget and technological resources.
-- Desson Thomson