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Wobbly, Family-Oriented Sci-Fi Adventure

Based on the illustrated children's book by Chris Van Allsburg (Jumanji, The Polar Express) and directed by Jon Favreau (Elf, Made, Swingers), Zathura is a science fiction/fantasy/action/adventure/family film. Parents or adults interested in family-oriented entertainment will find themselves passably diverted, if not particularly challenged by Zathura's familiar storyline or predictable (and, in one case, disturbing) plot turns. However, even taking into account Zathura's target demographic (pre-teenagers and their parents), viewers will find it difficult, if not impossible, to look past the transparent similarities to Jumanji.

Allsburg wrote Zathura in part to capitalize on Jumanji's success (albeit twenty years after Jumanji was first published). In both books, siblings find a board game, and after playing the game, find themselves inside the world of the game. In Jumanji, the game world leaks into the real world, transforming the real world of the characters into a jungle, complete with hothouse vegetation, undomesticated animals, and a big-game hunter. In Allsburg's sequel, the story picks up with the children seen at the end of Jumanji (the book, not the film) finding a box or chest. Inside they find the Jumanji game, which they pass up for Zathura. In turn, the characters are thrust into a series of misadventures. Here, Allsburg borrowed ideas and tropes from 50s-era science fiction, including super-sleek spaceships, giant, metallic robots, and monstrous aliens.

In Favreau's adaptation, these science fiction elements have been retained for a contemporary storyline centered on two squabbling brothers, Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo). Walter is ten and uninterested in spending time with his younger brother, who, of course, wants to do exactly the opposite. Walter and Danny also have an older sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart, Panic Room), who sees her younger brothers as nuisances to be, at most tolerated (when they're not being ignored). Their harried father (Tim Robbins) works from home, but he splits custody with his ex-wife (they each get their children for four or three days at a time, depending on the week). Neither boy is happy.

After an accident sends their father on a business-related trip to the local copy shop, the boys are left in their sister's custody. Danny finds a vintage wind-up board game, Zathura, in the cellar. With his brother looking on dispassionately, Danny begins the game, starting his game piece, a miniature rocket, on its course around the board. Zathura spits out a card at every turn. First up, "Meteor Shower. Take evasive action." After the meteor shower trashes their father's home, the boys discover that the house has become a spaceship, hurtling through space toward an unknown destination.

The subsequent cards release a seemingly harmless toy robot and carnivorous, heat-seeking aliens. One card even brings in another wayward player (Dax Shepard), who drops in just in time to help save the boys from whatever Zathura throws at them next.

From there, Zathura crosses over into cliché and never returns, borrowing an oft-used plot device that was already stale when "Star Trek" used it on network television forty years ago. The by-the-numbers screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps offers a typically perfunctory, unoriginal explanation.

In a family-oriented film, this plot development surprisingly leads to an unnecessary cringe-inducing moment between two of the characters, one likely to lead parents wondering at the purpose or intent behind this particular revelation (outside of the "ick" factor). This plot turn is one false note among several, which also includes sporadically unfunny dialogue delivered by Dax Shepard and awkward performances by practically the entire cast. To be fair, children's performances should be assessed using a looser, more forgiving standard, but combined with the movie's other weaknesses, we have to move beyond Zathura's derivative storyline and rough, raw performances to find something worth recommending.

It's there, but only in the special effects and the set pieces. Children and their parents will find themselves awed by some of the special effects and set pieces. The aliens' spaceships are a combination of the ultra-sleek spaceships that populated 50s-era sci-fi films and the Nautilus from Disney's 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne's' 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

In the final analysis, Zathura will primarily attract fans of Jumanji (the book, the film, or both), but it's also likely to disappoint them with its unoriginal, familiar storyline. Older viewers new to Allsburg's universe may find themselves impressed with a film that will take them back to their childhood and the games they played or wished they played, as well as the engaging, well-executed set pieces.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars