Space must be getting crowded: ‘Zathura’ takes the old adage ‘If it ain’t broke’ a little too far


Columbia Pictures

Directed by Jon Favreau

Written by David Koepp and John Kamps

Based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg

Starring: Jonah Bobo, Josh Hutcherson, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart and Tim Robbins

Opens Nov. 11, 2005

Rated PG/118 minutes

Two-and-a-half out of four stars

There’s something trashy and shamefully appealing about taking a well-worn idea or beloved character and thrusting it into outer space.

Perhaps an inky black vacuum of zero gravity and sleek, futuristic chrome will whet our palettes and lull our minds into a neat-o state of forgetfulness.

But we do remember-oh, do we remember.

In “Jason X,” Mr. Voorhees emerged from cryogenic slumber hundreds of years in the future and didn’t even take a whiz before he started hacking up horny young things in silver jumpsuits.

Familiar, yes, but with nifty holodecks instead of cabin decks.

Similarly, haven’t we already seen a movie about a board game that spews interactive adventure and dangerous creepy-crawlers?

Like “Jumanji” before it, “Zathura” is named after a board game that functions as the deadliest Choose-Your-Own-Adventure paperback ever-only this time, instead of the zoo coming to your house, your house is launched…INTO OUTER SPACE!

Also like “Jumanji,” “Zathura” is a noisy, over-padded adaptation of a beloved children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg (who should be used to noisy, over-padded adaptations of his books by now, especially after last year’s musical zombie-flick, “The Polar Express”).

All that aside, “Zathura” has more wit and tasty, visual bubblegum than either of those movies.

Even better, the script, by David Koepp and John Kamps, has the decency to introduce its characters with flair before launching them and their house to infinity and beyond.

Eight-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo, a name so lethally cute, we could bottle it up and rain it on our enemies) and his 12-year-old brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson) couldn’t be more different.

Danny is quiet and introspective, always at play in his vivid imagination. Walter is fierce and competitive, tossing the ball with Dad (Tim Robbins) and ordering Danny around with the best Older Brother Excuse in the book: “Because.”

These “Pre-Board Game” scenes are more charming than they have any right to be. Robbins hits just the right note as the dad separated from his wife and torn between his children and his work. He also has a 15-year-old daughter named Lisa (Kristen Stewart) who-like all teenage girls-lurks beneath her bed covers, plugged into her iPod.

When Lisa says she’s “hooking up” with a guy later that night, her dad is very wary.

“Gosh, we never should have watched ‘Thirteen’ together!” she cries, digging deeper beneath her blankets of angst.

These opening scenes are sprinkled with warmth and humor-so it’s kind of depressing when Dad leaves, the boys discover the magical board game, and “Zathura” locks onto amusement park rails to nowhere.

Sure, the special-effects are impressive-floating in a galaxy far, far away, the house is pelted by meteorites, the children are menaced by slobbering reptilian aliens and a berserk robot, and Lisa gets the chills-but to what end? Danny and Walter work out some sibling rivalry issues, but the plot is really just spinning its wheels between those damned action sequences.

The outer space thrill wears off fast.

“Zathura” is occasionally exciting, certainly good-looking, but ultimately numbing. The book was accused of cashing in on “Jumanji’s” winning formula, and the movie’s no different.

In space, nobody can hear Hollywood laughing all the way to the bank.

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