Let the wonderment commence! Based on the children's book by Jumanji author Chris Van Allsburg, Zathura attaches itself to another board game as deus ex machina, this time with two bickering brothers forced to play their way through outer space. Other than sidestepping danger and continuing a game that brings them nothing but trouble, they exert zero control over their destiny, which makes for an odd selling point: "Have fun, because there's no getting out of it." The retro-game seems like some sort of misbegotten child-discipline experiment from the '50s, but that passivity keeps the film from taking off. Is there a more obvious example of manipulative family entertainment than a movie about kids getting played by a game, not the other way around? Can Chutes & Ladders: The Movie be just around the corner?
To be fair, Zathura works hard to evoke the feeling of an '80s Steven Spielberg production, and maybe members of Generation Z will someday look upon this passable adventure as their very own The Goonies. Until then, they're stuck with typical thumb-sucking matinee fare, spruced up by storybook special effects and some irresistibly old-fashioned Rube Goldberg setpieces. The interminable setup establishes the rivalry between runty 6-year-old Jonah Bobo and his 10-year-old brother Josh Hutcherson, who's reached an age where he no longer wants to play with a kid who can't even catch a baseball. With their workaholic father (Tim Robbins) out of the house, the boys are forced to get along when Bobo discovers an old Zathura adventure game under the staircase and it jettisons the whole house into space. As they take turns at the game, new wonders and terrifying obstacles appear, from a meteor shower in the living room to a full-scale alien attack by lizard-creatures.
In a strange piece of casting, Dax Shepard (formerly of MTV's Punk'd) shows up as a stranded astronaut who helps the boys and heavily emphasizes the film's moral about brotherly love. Director Jon Favreau, who dipped profitably into family entertainment with 2003's Elf, effectively recreates the illustrative universe of a good children's book, but he's stuck with a story that noisily grinds its gears. There's no nuance to the game itself: The only way to win is just to keep playing until it's over, and the only way to leave the theater is to hover over these kids' shoulders until they finally wrap things up. In both cases, there are more entertaining ways to spend an afternoon.