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Screens Are those real?



Zathura uses old-fashion special effects to create an exciting alternate reality

I have never read Chris Van Allsburg's popular children's books, but judging by their previous cinematic adaptations, his name isn't a big draw for me. Last year's The Polar Express looked soulless and infatuated with technology over storytelling; Jumanji had a muddled tone, felt somehow unfriendly to its child protagonists, and, um, was infatuated with technology over storytelling.

A Jumanji for a new generation, Zathura takes the concept of a board game with mysterious powers to outer space.

Zathura, however, is something else entirely, despite the enormous similarity between its plot and that of Jumanji: Here again, siblings discover a strange board game that has the power to alter reality. In the previous film, each roll of the die brought an attack from some wild jungle animal; here, the first turn uproots the players' house and plants it in orbit in the rings of Saturn. Subsequent turns lead to a shower of meteors through the living room, a visit from a Robby-like robot bent on killing the brothers, marauding lizard-men, and a marooned astronaut who (for a change) wants to help the youngsters instead of hurting them. It's crazy to keep playing the game, but the kids quickly intuit that their house won't return to earth unless they play through to the end.

The film's design is lovely, from vintage spaceships and aliens that weren't built on a computer hard drive to the house itself, a gorgeous Craftsman bungalow that practically cries out with each new injury. The filmmakers avoid computer graphics wherever possible, using models and "practical" effects to give the action more immediacy. Watching Zathura, some moviegoers might be startled to realize just how lame a lot of the lazy CG effects they've seen lately are. A sci-fi adventure as fast-paced as this one could easily have produced sensory-overload stupor, but the young cast (even a sister - played by Kristen Stewart, the daughter from Panic Room - who is cryogenically frozen for much of the film) are lively and engaging enough to compete with the thrills. The spaceman, played by Dax Shepard of Punk'd, has a whiff of old-school Buck Rogers manliness about him that adds to the retro-meets-contemporary vibe.

Dir. Jon Favreau; writ. Chris Van Allsburg (novel), David Koepp, John Kamps; feat. Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins (PG)

Director Jon Favreau's previous film was the hugely charming Elf, and Zathura makes a case that he's more responsible for Elf's success than we Will Ferrell fans gave him credit for. Playing the pure kid-fantasy action with a sense of timing and self-awareness that will engage adults, he elevates material that was pretty good to begin with: A couple of zingers in the script (like an indie-film-conscious allusion to Thirteen) have the freshness of on-set invention, but whether they were in the screenplay or not, writers David Koepp and John Kamps have done a fine job of building something fun out of material by an author who, until now, seemed doomed to be adapted into mediocre movies.

By John DeFore

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