Zathura is, essentially, a space version of Jumanji. Both films are about a magical game whose every turn throws its players into a series of fantastical events or challenges based around a certain theme. (With Jumanji it was jungles. Both films are adaptations of books by US childrens’ author Chris Van Allsburg.) In Zathura, once young Danny has wound up the clockwork game and pressed the battered “GO” button, their father’s house is transported into space and subjected to, amongst other things, a robot rampage, attack by Zorgons, and a visit from a passing astronaut.
It’s plenty of fun. I liked the banter between bickering brothers Danny and Walter (“That’s your robot?” “At least I’ve got a robot”), and the whole thing came close to conjuring that special excitement you feel at a certain age when you see films and totally get lost in some zany little world of pure adventure. (Which happened for me with The Goonies in 1985.)
But it doesn’t really have much substance. Once the game gets going, for a while it just feels like a bunch of disconnected episodes. It only starts to develop a more emotionally meaningful strand with the appearance of the astronaut, whose identity eventually provides a somewhat mind-boggling twist. Also, despite being set in space, the film has a more closed-in feel than Jumanji, because although you get the occasional awe-inspiring shot of an enormous planet or sun, the action is basically limited to the house. There’s quite a funny suspense moment when the older brother, Walter, gets a wish, just after arguing with his brother for the n-th time, but aside from that, once its hour and a half is over — and unless you’re a kid — Zathura doesn’t really linger, aside from a distinct feeling of having just had some fun.