Walden Media and Walt Disney aren't the only ones with a movie about kids who get transported to another world when they find a bit of magic in their house.
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With "Zathura: A Space Adventure" from Columbia Pictures releasing nationwide today, the silver-screen delights of the holiday season have already begun.
Billed as an "intergalactic world of wonder," this sci-fi family film is based on the 2002 children's book by Chris Van Allsburg. Van Allsburg also wrote The Polar Express and Jumanji, both of which have been adapted for the screen, and the latter of which operates on a board-game premise much like Zathura.
But if "Jumanji" wasn't your cup of tea, give "Zathura" a chance. Director Jon Favreau, whose last outing was the smash hit "Elf," is proving he can deliver the goods.
The plot is simple: Six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) find an old game, which then magically propels them into deep space where they must hurdle one obstacle after another if they are ever to return home.
Those obstacles include meteor showers, defective robots and man-eating aliens called Zorgons. Favreau's vision is retro, which seems perfecto for this material. To his everlasting credit, he never makes the mistake of so many of his colleagues: losing the story in the special effects.
Instead, the effects fuel the story, which boils down to the older son learning to appreciate his kid brother—especially in light of the parents' divorce.
Several times, "Zathura" lets on like a Steven Spielberg film. It's not, but the master filmmaker's influence shines through—not only with story beats, but also action sequences (and an Amblin-like bicycle that keeps circling the house as it hurtles through outer space).
The script was even co-written by David Koepp, who has penned several scripts for Spielberg, including "Jurassic Park" and "War of the Worlds."
But enough about Spielberg. "Zathura" is Favreau's film, and he has fashioned another PG flick that parents and children can enjoy together. It's wonder-inducing for all ages, and the timing of the jokes certainly helps sell it for adults.
The kids pull their weight, and Dax Shepard plays the stranded astronaut with just the right amount of bravado and whimsy.
The score by John Debney is spot-on, and the sound design really puts you inside the action.
If all that's not enough, "Zathura" has the added pop-culture distinction of being co-produced by Peter Billingsley—best known as Ralphie in the classic holiday film "A Christmas Story."
"Zathura" won't achieve the legendary status of that Christmas film, but it makes for a fun time at the movies.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for fantasy action and peril, and some language. Reviewer's Note: The older son uses some slang at the very beginning, but after he's berated by his father, that's about all there is.
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: David Koepp and John Kamps (based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg)
Cast: Walter: Josh Hutcherson; Danny: Jonah Bobo; The Astronaut: Dax Shepard; Lisa: Kristen Stewart; Dad: Tim Robbins.
The movie's official Web site is here.