Saturday, January 8, 2011
Starring - Josh Hutcherson, Jonah Bobo, Dax Shepard, Kristen Stewart, Tim Robbins
The first time I read the words "A new adventure from the world of Jumanji" on the cover box of Zathura I was quite titillated; Jumanji was a lot of fun, and I inherently prefer space-stuff to jungle-stuff, so how could I lose? Then I wondered how many reality-altering board games could possibly exist out there. Then I remembered the time I played "Mouse Trap" and found rat shit under the kitchen sink and wondered if maybe I wasn't living an adventure of my own. Turned out I wasn't. Halting this digression, I must profess at the outset of this particular interpretation that I did quite enjoy my "new adventure", though the marketing think-tank neglected to include the term "moderately inferior." Now, it could be argued that each film is an independent piece of art and I don't really have the right to draw comparisons between the two, and I can't vehemently disagree with that notion. In this case, however, it seems as though the latter is leaning very heavily on the shoulder of it's predecessor; is Zathura a sequel? A loose remake? An accompaniment piece? Or does it even matter so long as the viewer accepts the preconceived mythology set forth in Jumanji? That way, Zathura the movie doesn't have to spend any time developing the existence of "Zathura" the board game, because we viewers have already accepted the probability of said board game. Truth be told, I'd say the real answer is that this is supposed to be an entertaining kids movie about fighting robots and aliens, with a couple of life lessons blatantly tossed on top, and any over-analysing is obviously the action of a somewhat obsessive, somewhat pretentious, somewhat nerdy film fanatic with way too much brainstorming time on his hands. (This probably isn't a good time to note that I saw this movie twice to ensure I didn't miss any subtleties.)
The above cast list of five comprise the entire ensemble of human characters, but the vast majority of the screen time is shared by Hutcherson and Bobo. (Hell, Tim Robbins may have been strolling by on his way home from softball practice and had a free Sunday evening.) Hinging your film on two kids is often treading some dangerous ground; the actors have to maintain that childlike naturalism and banter, without coming across as too precocious or simply annoying. Our two heroes seem to hit the mark about half the time; I found some of their repertoire to be fairly humorous, particularly in the scenarios involving the reading and deciphering of the game cards. But it was always carefully checked by a healthy argument and round of name calling, and these are the scenes in which the acting succumbed to yelling and the grating began. Though I do appreciate the mild cussing spewed forth by the youngsters; it's not like the good old PG days, but it is one step closer to de-coddling the youth. Fortunately, Shepard and Stewart are introduced to break up the bickering; unfortunately, in both cases, it's about 7 minutes too late. Not that their chemistry is really that much better, despite the fact that the best one-liners do belong to Shepard. Stewart ran around in close-to-inappropriate lounging attire for a teenager, (which I'm actually okay with, not for the gross reasons one may assume, rather because I support the fueling of the imaginations of children,) perfecting the weak delivery and jerky head motions that would one day make her wealthy.
Moaning aside, the overall spectacle of the film is pretty bang on, with a bright colour scheme, grand exterior shots of the perils in the vastness of space, and a bunch of rip roaring destruction. The robot and the Zorgons hold onto that pseudo-retro design as realized with modern technology, and all of the threatening situations unfold extremely well. It was those scenes that made it easier to overlook the irritations brought on by the cast or script. The chaotic fun is more accentuated as it hones in on that forbidden fantasy of decimating one's private residence. However, by committing the bulk of the action to the actual house (and to the impending moral of "An adventure can happen without even leaving your own home..."), I feel there may have some missed opportunities to take this destruction on to broader horizons. I've got a lot of curiosities about what else was on board that Zorgon ship...It can't all be furnaces, conveyor belts, and 4-eyed goats...I don't wanna rub it in, but in Jumanji I got to see an entire town get ravaged.
And then the conclusion comes along. And things get a little weird. Some sort of metaphysical nonsense involving parallel universes, or something. I've seen a variety of movies that warn against the dangers of interacting with a past or future self, but very few have encouraged it as a means of personal growth. There's something about absorbing oneself into oneself that just doesn't seem like a healthy idea.
Generally, I couldn't help but feel as though every time something in the film went right, something else went "not right"; not terribly wrong, mind you, just "not right". There were many lessons laden throughout, and a little less focus on these may have been the sacrifice required to tweak those missteps. The movie had some very bright moments when it flirted with old tyme space serials, and I'm compelled to imagine the potential of the Astronaut character had he followed the same mold; full of bravura and 1950's idealism. Of course, this would greatly impact the "Take not thine sibling for granted..." lesson, and eliminate the potential existential crisis that it may inspire, and would that not be for the better? I also feel that I may owe Mr. Favreau an apology; I enjoyed myself, (twice, even) and it may not be fair of me to draw constant comparisons to it's superior predecessor. His intentions may have been differentiation, but is it worth it if the inevitable reaction is that "Jumanji did it better"? The only thing that is certain is that I'll never again haphazardly poke around the open game boxes at the Value Village.