Nobody’s too old for space adventure

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Nobody’s too old for space adventure

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When I was a kid, the swingset was a spaceship, the rocky place behind the garage was a strange new world, and my brother and sister were the crew on an intergalactic voyage full of inscrutable aliens, high drama and dangerous black holes.
As an adult, it’s hard to remember what it felt like to have such a free imagination, but “Zathura,” based on the book by the wonderful children’s author Chris Van Allsburg, was a welcome reminder. In it, a family with big problems braves fantastical obstacles and emerges with a renewed appreciation for each other ― the formula is tried and true, but the execution is so much fun you’ll forgive a few cliches.
The focus is on two bickering brothers, Walter (Josh Hutcherson), 10, and Danny (Jonah Bobo), 6. Their divorced dad (Tim Robbins) is doing his best to give them equal time and attention, but as the younger brother, Danny feels left out. Walter, constantly rubbing things in Danny’s face, is no help, and their older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) would rather ignore them altogether.
But then Danny finds a board game called Zathura in the basement. Two spaceships, one red and one blue, stick out of a tin, spring-loaded mechanism, and when Danny turns the key and pushes the “GO” button, the red spaceship moves and a card pops out: “Meteor shower ― Take evasive action.” After struggling to read it, Danny finally asks Walter for help, just before boiling hot rocks begin making Swiss cheese out of the living room floor. It turns out the house has been transported to outer space, and Walter and Danny must take turns reading cards to finish the game before they can return to Earth.
“Zathura” has the limitless creativity of the best children’s films, but doesn’t neglect the realistic limitations of its characters. In the course of defeating the Zorgons, Danny must overcome his fear of the basement. Faced with heavy doors or tall obstacles, even Walter has to ask for help. Naturally, by the end they come to rely on each other rather than competing for attention.
Sure, a suburban house wouldn’t make the most secure spaceship in reality, and we never do learn how a couch can burn in space or how gravity can work in the house but not outside it. And then there’s the whole matter of oxygen to breathe. But this is a fantasy, darn it, and hopefully you’ll be able to suspend disbelief.
For adults, the best part of “Zathura” will be the humor, which is delightfully absurd. When something drifts past the window, Walter and Danny are terrified that an awful alien has arrived. Instead, the doorbell rings, and it’s an astronaut. When the game grants Walter a wish (upon a shooting star, of course), rather than being extravagant, he wishes for a signed football.
See “Zathura” with your kids or nephew or niece. Or, heck, see it with your friends. Adults sometimes like to think we can’t learn anything from a “kid’s movie,” but anyone who doesn’t live alone needs the occasional reminder to be patient with those around them. And everyone living in this stressful modern world could certainly use some good old-fashioned escapist fantasy now and then.


Zathura
Family / English
113 min.
Opens Thursday


by Ben Applegate
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