Remember that summer vacation when it just poured? Dad had paid a small ransom -- as he kept muttering over his pre-noon beer -- for that perfect beach house. And now it was bucketing. That's when someone pulled out the dusty board game: Tokens, cards and dice spilled out before a circle of grumpy faces. Then everyone, in spite of themselves, got caught up in the game -- hooting and high-fiving, slowly slipping into the warm waters of familial goodwill.
"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, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg (also author of "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.
Walter gets so exasperated with Danny that, at one point, he loads him into a dumbwaiter and lowers him to the basement. That's when Danny discovers Zathura, an old-fashioned board game, mostly made of tin, with a windup key, a lever, 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 being 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.
As in "Jumanji," each turn yields a very real surprise -- often unpleasant. Lisa is plunged into a cryonic sleep for five turns. A robot invades the house, programmed erroneously to destroy them -- or so the cue card tells them. Flesh-eating Zorgons (reptilian bipedal aliens) pursue the floating house in their own spaceships, and these guys are hungry. And an astronaut (Dax Shepard), who has been trapped in the nethersphere of this game for years, literally drops in. (To the brothers' disgust, Lisa, finally awakened from her involuntary slumber, develops a crush on this stranger. )
It won't surprise you to hear it's going to take a lot of sibling camaraderie for Danny, Walter and Lisa to get their house back home. Or that Favreau, who first appeared on the scene as writer-star of 1996's "Swingers," and most recently directed "Elf," engenders an amusing, improvisatory atmosphere among the performers. They persuasively convey the family's domestic feistiness, with screaming battles that reach such a pitch at times they forget the hostile forces around them.
"Zathura" has an almost antique charm, recalling the 1950s sci-fi movies in which actors in silver suits pretended to be aliens, or those old Ray Harryhausen films such as 1963's "Jason and the Argonauts," in which ancient warriors fought herky-jerky monsters on studio back lots. The Zathura game looks like something hauled out of a Cold War-era basement. This hand-made feel gives "Zathura" an appealing, childlike sense of wonder, an element too often forgotten in movies with many times the budget and technological resources. By comparison, the 1995 movie "Jumanji," whose plot is remarkably similar (preteen boy plays and gets swallowed into a board game for 26 years), has such stunning spectacles as rhinos, zebras and elephants thundering through a household hallway, but its characters and story seem like afterthoughts. Favreau clearly understands that the importance of a board game isn't in its fancy bells and whistles. It's measured by the people who play it and the fun it gives them.
Zathura (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild profanity. And those Zorgons might be too scary for young children.