Zathura: In Defense of the Forgotten Jumanji Sequel

Jon Favreau's terrific Zathura is the other follow-up to Jumanji that deserves to be watched. We take a look back...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Spoilers for Jumanji, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle and Zathura lie ahead

With Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle becoming a massive hit, it is easy to forget that 12 years ago there was another attempt to follow up 1995’s Jumanji. Co-written by David Koepp, directed by a pre-Iron Man Jon Favreau, and starring a pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson (with supporting turns from a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart and a pre-Kristen Bell Dax Shepard), Zathura: A Space Adventure was adapted from the sequel to Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s story. Despite bombing on release in 2005, Zathura is a prime example of how misleading box office returns can be: with its witty, efficient script, sense of directorial whimsy, and focus on character over special effects, it is a terrific movie worthy of reappraisal.

Estranged brothers Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) are staying with their divorced dad (Tim Robbins) for the weekend. The brothers are forced to work together when they are transported into the intergalactic adventure game Zathura.

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In comparison to the other Jumanji films, Zathura feels incredibly small. Unlike Joe Johnston’s 1995 original, with the game’s denizens breaking out, or Welcome To The Jungle’s video game environment, Zathura is restricted to the confines of the house. It becomes a siege movie, with the focus on how the situation puts stress on the relationship between the kids.

Like the other Jumanjis, Zathura’s premise is allied to a solid theme. All the movies ground their characters in recognizable childhood crises. Where the original film went for parental death, and Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle was based around characters becoming comfortable with themselves, the brothers in Zathura are dealing with the fallout of their parents’ divorce, and – as sometimes happens – Walter blames Danny for the split.

Ultimately, the movie is ultimately about Walter learning to appreciate his brother.

What is great about this movie is that it is completely earnest – the world-building, the characters’ relationships, and the stakes all have weight. The most obvious example of this tactility is the special effects: Favreau made a conscious choice to utilize practical models, puppets and makeup to realise the film’s most fantastical elements, and it pays off. When the boys are fleeing a meteor shower, hiding from the meat-eating Zorgons, or trying to dodge a rogue robot, the focus on in-camera effects gives the movie a visceral impact that would not be possible with computer-generated imagery.

While the effects work is good, the movie’s greatest strength is that the brothers feel like siblings, with arguments that go on too long, and low-level scheming to gain favour with their dad. This movie is not afraid to make these boys unlikeable in order to make the drama work. They both feel like ordinary kids, which makes their peril feel more real. The movie’s darkest moment does not involve meat-eating lizard-men or rogue robots, it’s a ten-year-old boy wishing his brother had never been born.

The movie has a strong sense of tone, striking just the right balance between adventure and relationship drama. It also has a well-judged sense of humour designed to appeal to all ages, while never undermining the stakes of the scenario: there are plenty of sight gags (the running jokes with the bicycle floating around the house like a satellite, and the boys’ attempts to secure Lisa’s frozen body), but the movie also features a nice line in snappy verbal exchanges, such as this early example:

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Danny: “You’re gonna leave us alone in this creepy old house?”

Dad: “It’s not creepy, it’s old.”

Walter: “I like Mom’s better.”

Dad: “Well, so did she and now it’s hers.”

The filmmakers even get away with some more adult themes (such as Lisa’s romantic infatuation with the Astronaut). It feels like a movie that kids can watch, but never condescends to them.

Outside of the basic premise, there is no real formula to the Jumanji movies, but one thing they all share is a character who has been trapped in the game for a long period of time. In one of his most natural and likeable performances, Dax Shepard plays the Astronaut, a character the boys accidentally conjure up.

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Serving as both a sardonic commentator on their moves, and a font of hard-won wisdom, Shepard steals the movie. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the movie is how prickly he is – it is hard to think of another sidekick in a kids’ movie getting visibly irate at his charges’ endless squabbling and telling them to shut up.

Shephard’s performance gets even better on a second viewing, when you know that the Astronaut is – spoilers – revealed to be an alternate version of Walter. He has been trapped in the game for 15 years after he wished Danny out of existence. His taciturn facade and agitation at his younger self’s treatment of his brother gains new meaning – he is not reacting as an exasperated adult, but out of a sense of regret and self-loathing at erasing his brother. Shephard’s character gives Zathura a sense of pathos the other films in the franchise do not really have.

If the movie has a flaw, it might be Josh Hutcherson’s performance. He is a really good actor (check him out in Little Manhattan, which was made around the same time), but as Walter he feels a little miscast. Walter is meant to be a bit of an ass, but Hutcherson is a little too convincing as the proto-jock older brother – when his character switches at the end, it is not that convincing. He is not detrimental to the movie, but it does feel like that aspect of the movie required a bit more finesse.

At the time Zathura felt like a throwback; today it feels even more like an artifact of family-friendly entertainment that we do not see anymore, at least in live-action: ordinary kids in an extraordinary situation that forces them to learn something about themselves.

Ironically, the very things which made it feel like a callback (practical effects; the juxtaposition of bland domesticity and fantasy; ordinary kids as the heroes) have contributed to its uniqueness. Hopefully the success of Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle brings more attention to its unheralded but equally entertaining predecessor.