"What's Zathura?" asks Danny after finding an old space-adventure board game in the basement. It's a good question. As far as the game is concerned it's the place you land on to win. As far as this movie is concerned it's the happy place kids end up at after they finally stop bickering with their siblings long enough to figure out that it makes a whole lot more sense to be best friends, not worst enemies.
Danny and his older brother, Walter (a fourth-grader), can't stand each other, you see, and the Zathura game seems to know just what they need to shape up and fly right: a trip into outer space. And so it happens. The second Danny winds up the game's spring-run gears and pushes the "Go" button, his house is uprooted and tossed into an asteroid field somewhere near Saturn. Along for the ride is Walter, of course, and also their teenage sister, Lisa. (But she's too busy primping for a big date to notice at first.)
Each boy's turn yields a new challenge or adventure. Asteroids smash through the roof. Aliens attack. A wandering astronaut appears. Aliens attack again. A rampaging robot tries to kill them. Aliens attack. A comet races by. Aliens attack again. So much for Candy Land. This is one board game guaranteed not to be boring!
Bobby, stop pestering your brother. Tommy, don't hit your brother. Debbie, stop pushing your sister. Mia, stop taking your brother's candy. Alex, stop pinching your sister. Boys, take turns! Girls, sit still! If you're a parent, you know how it goes. And goes. And goes. The antidote? Gentle yet firm correction. And lots of patience. Zathura might actually help, too, since this film's primary lesson is that siblings should learn to get along, learn to love each other and learn to take care of each other.
The board game that becomes an adventure teaches Danny and Walter that their bickering and fighting is wrong. And by using out-of-this-world danger to drive home the point, it shows them that the only way they're going to get through childhood and adolescence in one piece is to team up and cut the criticism. The astronaut comes right out and says it. "Don't be so quick to sell out your brother, kid," he says, scolding Walter, "he's all you got."
Dad does his best to convince them that an overly competitive spirit isn't the only thing they share. He tries to build each one of them up in the areas he needs it. He tries to keep them from using him as leverage in their power struggle. He plays baseball with them even though he desperately needs to get some work done. And he tries to be as fair as he can with them. Admitting that his divorce from their mother has put them all in a bad spot, he asks them to make the best of it with him, assuring them they will always have a place with him to call home.
Accompanying the message about getting along is one about facing your fears. Danny is scared to go into the house's basement. But before their adventure is over, he's gone into much worse places than a dark, dank rectangle of concrete. Also established is the fact that cheating and lying are wrong. And that anger causes you to say and do things you'll regret ("No matter how good an idea seems while you're angry, it never is," the astronaut tells Walter).
The game is magical. But only in an imagination sort of way, not a spiritual one. No basis for the game's power to transport them into space is ever explored, leaving you to assume that everything happening is happening inside the kids' heads. The only thing that's even close to spiritual here is when Walter is told by the game to wish upon a falling star. He does, and his wishes are granted.
Lisa informs her dad that she's going to be hooking up with her boyfriend that evening. And while she gives no indication that she means anything more than "meeting," Dad rightfully expresses concern over her now-sexualized choice of words. Also, Lisa spends the first half of the film wearing a shirt and small boxers. She shows a little cleavage and her midriff. [Spoiler Warning] After Lisa learns that she has been mooning over an adult version of her brother Walter (none of them know a time warp of sorts has brought the man to them, and they don't recognize him), she gasps and trails off, "And I wanted ...!" Later, young Walter teases her, asking if she still thinks he has "gorgeous eyes."
Remember those attacking aliens I mentioned? Allow me to repeat myself. Aliens attack! Only a few minutes have gone by before the house is a royal wreck. And by the time the credits roll, it's quite literally destroyed. Alien spaceships fire on it over and over again, blowing holes through it and setting parts of it on fire. Small asteroids also rip holes through ceilings and floors. And a robot-on-the-blink crashes heedlessly through doorways, into a fireplace and through walls while chasing the boys.
Scarier than that, actually, are scenes in which Walter and Lisa get sucked out into space. A heavy gravitational pull rips part of the house apart and threatens to put an end to the three siblings. (Danny slams face-first into a window.) A fiery black hole does the same. Lisa is frozen (for five turns). And in that solid state, she falls over and crashes down a flight of stairs. The robot clamps its iron claws around Walter's neck.
Lizard-men alien beasties board the house and hunt its occupants in a sequence that drags out a bit and will frighten most younger children half to death. The astronaut squirts lighter fluid on the couch and sets it afire to distract the aliens—hopefully something that's never tried at your home! Also, the two boys and the astronaut break up furniture and build a fire with it in the kitchen.
Non alien-inspired violence involves some roughhousing. Danny accidentally hits Walter with a baseball. Walter responds by chasing him around the house. Lisa smacks Walter to make him go away.
Crude or Profane Language
The movie opens with one brother calling the other a "d--k." And later, Walter gleefully includes "b--ch" in one of his sentences. That's inexcusable in a piece of entertainment such as this that's obviously trying to become a teaching tool parents can use to help their kids mature. I'll note here, though, that Dad does give Walter a talking to for his name calling. It's not a stern rebuke, but it's more than you usually see at the movies when kids swear onscreen. Also, "a--" and "h---" are said once each, and God's name is misused as an exclamation a half-dozen times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Beyond their typical boyish bad behavior, Walter terrorizes Danny by lowering him (via dumbwaiter) into the basement, knowing his brother is scared. Lisa's attitude toward her father is one of disrespect and disdain, and he ultimately leaves her alone about it. Walter accuses Danny of messing up his life ("Nobody wants you around") and even of making their parents split up. Lisa doesn't live up to her responsibility of babysitting her brothers. Walter uses hairspray and a lighter to make a flamethrower. An indirect nod is given to the R-rated movie Thirteen.
Based on a children's book by Chris Van Allsburg (as was 2004's The Polar Express and 1995's Jumanji), Zathura is colorful, clever, compelling, and it teaches valuable lessons that are well-suited to its primary audience. "I have two children now," says director Jon Favreau. "I watch a lot of movies that are geared towards kids and this one really appealed to my sensibility. As a filmmaker, a big part of your job is to put energy into getting a message out into the world that you believe in. I like stories that offer hope and films that have responsible themes. When you're making a movie for young people, there should be a little aspirin in the applesauce. There should be a nice message at the core."
Zathura is violent and a bit intense in spots (and parents should consider that), but because the intensity is used so effectively and toward such a good goal—to teach siblings to stop bickering and start cooperating—it's not what trips me up. My main quibble with Favreau is that he chose to include a mostly extraneous teenage daughter who derisively disrespects her dad, and he injected a couple of insulting crudities—spoken by kids. Those things aren't necessary. They don't move the story along. They don't assist the point that's being made. And at least one of the words is bad enough that it's going to generate a ripple of shocked whispers through theaters full of families every time this movie plays. (It certainly did in the theater I was in.) Next time, how 'bout having the boys call each other "nerds" or "meanies"? Wouldn't that have worked just as well? Just because kids use bad language these days doesn't make it right to entertain them with it.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Jonah Bobo as Danny; Josh Hutcherson as Walter; Dax Shepard as the Astronaut; Kristen Stewart as Lisa; Tim Robbins as Dad
Jon Favreau ( )