You know how when you open an old board game and there’s that one piece missing and it keeps you from playing, or you can still play but it’s just not as much fun as it should be?
“Zathura: A Space Adventure” is kind of like that.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s book, the movie has a lot of the elements that might make it thrilling, and it’s visually arresting, but it’s missing the emotional connection necessary to make it interesting. As a de facto sequel to “Jumanji,” it follows some of the same formula -- a long-forgotten board game becomes a portal to a fantasy realm that leads to a Dr. Phil moment. In “Zathura,” a fractured family is taken on a wild interstellar ride in search of the key to brotherly love.
Their parents divorced, 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and 6-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) split their time between households. When staying with Dad (Tim Robbins) in his rambling California Craftsman-style home, they’re frequently a little bored when they aren’t competing for his attention or generally driving each other crazy. They also find the house, especially its dark basement, a little creepy.
One afternoon when Dad needs to run out to a business meeting, they’re left in the care of their teenage sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart), who’s asleep in her upstairs bedroom. Danny winds up in the basement, where he discovers a dusty, metal board game called Zathura.
Walter ignores his pleas to play with him, so Danny begins playing the cleverly engineered game by himself and finds himself holding a card that reads, “Meteor shower. Take evasive action.”
Soon the house is being pelted by increasingly larger bits of molten rock and the boys discover they’ve been launched into deep space.
The only way to get back to Earth is to keep playing the game. Each turn brings a new danger: a large, dysfunctional robot, carnivorous lizard-like beings called Zorgons and the rapid destruction of their home. Oh, yeah, and the scantily clad Lisa gets zapped into a cryogenic freeze.
Along the way, Walter and Danny also rescue an intrepid astronaut (Dax Shepard) who’s played the game before and helps them navigate the more terrifying turns. The film’s main dramatic question is whether the brothers can play together nicely long enough to finish the game and return home before they become meat for the Zorgons.
Jon Favreau’s third outing as a director proves he can handle the larger budget and special effects, but the film strangely lacks the poignancy that underscored his previous studio effort, “Elf.” The early scenes in “Zathura” depicting the family’s lack of domestic tranquillity don’t ring true, and that severely diminishes the emotional payoff later on.
There’s also a lack of causality in the way “Zathura” unfolds dramatically. The events feel random rather than linked, and although there always seems to be something happening, there’s no real buildup of tension.
It may be that Van Allsburg’s economical 32-page books (he also did “Jumanji” and “The Polar Express”), which so effectively stimulate children’s creative minds, are best left to the imagination.
MPAA rating: PG for fantasy action and peril, and some language
Times guidelines: Too intense for young children
A Columbia Pictures release. Director Jon Favreau. Producers William Teitler, Scott Kroopf, Michael De Luca. Screenplay by David Koepp & John Kamps, based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg. Director of photography Guillermo Navarro. Editor Dan Lebental. Costume designer Laura Jean Shannon. Music John Debney. Production designer J. Michael Riva. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.
In general release.