My wife had never heard of Zathura. This is not a normal thing.
With the 15th anniversary of the film approaching, and it now streaming on Netflix, I figured it was time for a rewatch. I told my wife, Jayne, “We have to rewatch Zathura soon.” She said, “What’s that?” I replied,“Oh, it’s this awesome little movie that’s kind of Jumanji in space. Jon Favreau directed it.” Then a day would go by, I’d remind her about Zathura again, and she’d already forgotten us talking about it. This went on and on until we finally pressed play.
“Wait, this movie has Josh Hutcherson, Kristen Stewart, Dax Shepard, and Tim Robbins in it? How have I never heard of it?”
It was a fair question, especially from a woman who lives with me and worked in a video store growing up. Zathura: A Space Adventure was released in November of 2005 and, on a budget of about $65 million, grossed about $65 million worldwide. Not great. A few people saw it, but it wasn’t a hit. It didn’t help being released within weeks of the fourth Harry Potter movie, the first Chronicles of Narnia movie, The Legend of Zorro, Chicken Little, and the remake of King Kong. It got buried.
The movie itself, however, was well-received, sporting a Fresh 76% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Very soon after Zathura, most of its participants went on to much bigger things: directing Iron Man, and starring in Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Parenthood. All of which suggests, and a rewatch confirms, Zathura is a movie stuck in time. It was released a little too close to a movie it owes everything too, 1995's Jumanji, and too early in the careers of its cast and crew for them to have fully blossomed as performers and filmmakers. Everything about it happened at exactly the wrong moment.
Zathura follows brothers Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) who are bored while spending the weekend with their separated father (Tim Robbins). They fight, as brothers do, and that rivalry leads them to play an old board game Danny found in the basement: Zathura. From there, it really is Jumanji in space (fittingly as the film is based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, who also wrote Jumanji). The board game comes to life, their house is hurled into deep space, and Danny and Walter have to finish the game to get home. But with each turn, things get worse. From killer robots to flesh-eating aliens and more.
There are moments in Zathura of pure delight and wonder. Like when we first see the house in space, Walter finally has an epiphany about his role as an older brother or this, maybe the best line in a movie...ever.
“Get me a juice box, biotch.” Brilliant.
But there are also stretches in the middle of the movie that are mightily monotonous. Because their sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) literally gets frozen for most of the movie, the bulk of the story is Walter and Danny just taking turns in the game with slightly different obstacles. Evade this, fix that, etc. Eventually, Lisa comes back and, most importantly, a new astronaut character is introduced (Dax Shepard), but, until then, it’s repetitive.
The crux of the movie is such a simple one, too. It’s about two brothers growing up: Walter learning to respect his younger brother, and Danny facing his fears. There’s not much more to it. Compare that to the original Jumanji where, in addition to a little sibling rivalry, there was also this adventurer who’d spent his entire life stuck in the game. It added a whole other dimension of drama and emotion. Plus, there was the added advantage of him being played by Robin Williams (sorry, Dax).
Now, spoiler alert, Zathura echoes that subplot with the astronaut character, in a rather profound and touching way too, but it’s kept as a surprise. So while the reveal is excellent and takes the movie to another level (even if it doesn’t make much sense), everything is backloaded rather than spread out. As a result, the movie works but feels uneven.
Which, I think, is probably the biggest problem. Jayne, and the world, probably don’t remember Zathura because Zathura was culturally overshadowed and is just an average movie. It’s good, the experience of watching it is enjoyable, but outside of Hutcherson requesting juice boxes, very little about it stands out. It’s just, as advertised, Jumanji in space, but not as good.
That said, there are way, way worse things you can watch out there. The effects throughout the film, both practical and digital, are very impressive. The cinematography is rather beautiful. The score is rousing. Watching it now—knowing Stewart from Twilight, Shepard from Parenthood or his podcast, Hutcherson from Hunger Games, and that Favreau would direct Iron Man right after—certainly adds a lot. The film captures a moment in time before so many things changed. For example, it’s impossible to see the robot in this movie now and not see the Mark I Iron Man armor.
The film was mostly forgotten, but it’s not without its merits. If you watch it again, odds are it’ll be much more memorable, flaws and all. Zathura: A Space Adventure, which celebrates its 15th anniversary in November, is currently streaming on Netflix.
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