Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a few looks at ZATHURA, which apparently screened across the nation a few days ago. They didn't really publicize that, did they? We got a yin and a yang for you, a positive and a negative. So, read on and figure out which side you'll find yourself on!
Hiya Harry, Morry, Quint.
As you guys probably know, Sony held a "sneak preview" for Zathura yesterday all across the country. I snuck into one at my local megaplex and, frankly, dug what I saw.
All I knew going in was that it was based on the book by the same guy that wrote Jumanji (which sucked as a movie) and The Polar Express (ditto). Also, that Favs made a big deal on his show, "Dinner for Five", that he wanted models instead of going 100% CG.
The first thing that struck me was the "future-retro" opening. It was like the closing credit sequence from The Incredibles. I dunno why, but Peter Billingsley's name in the credits made me grin for some reason. I know he produces the show and he 'n Favs go way back. Maybe it's seeing his name on a kids' flick again.
Well, the flick starts with the obligatory "parent-has-to-leave" intro. I always like seeing Tim Robbins cause he always knows what he's doing. He doesn't just brush this off like he knows he's in a family flick. He spends his brief on-screen time making the Dad a likable guy who inevitably has to leave (otherwise, how're the kids gonna have their adventure?).
I was pleasantly surprised to see that kids actually act like kids without being annoying as all goddamn hell. We all love Dakota Fanning. But it is possible for kids to be good actors without trying to be Oscar-worthy. Accordingly, they don't have to be so "cutesy" that you feel like punchin' 'em in the gut cause you're sure that they're only in the flick by being someone's nephew. This comes off as real sibling rivalry (something I know about all too well). The way the kids listen to their Dad talk to the other one was the best part cause it added a level of humanity other family flicks overlook.
Plus, it's too Favs' and David Koepp's credits that they make the characters "real" and "modern" without forcing it. I'm sure some parents will take issue with the younger brother calling the elder "a dick" and the older telling his pet robot to "get me a juice box, bee-yotch !". But honestly, those are no worse than Elliot calling his brother "penis-breath" in ET. Plus there's the part where the Dad openly worries about his daughter "hooking up" with boys and she yells "We never should have rented Thir13en !" These moments may raise eye-brows but they're nothing to get your panties in a twist over.
What I loved was that Fav and Koepp never forget that the whole thing is seen from a kid's-eye-view. When Quint spoke to Fav recently, he said how much he paid attention to Robert Rodriguez' movie, like Spy Kids. This is important cause it means the difference between action scenes that are exciting, but not too scary. Between the boys flying out the front door Alien style, rather than the rules of space travel having no sway over their house. It all looks like something an 8-year-old would think up. And I mean that as a compliment.
Favs' insistence on models and on-set gags pays off. When we first get a look at the exterior of the house in space, a trained eye will easily see that it's not CG, but that somehow makes it more "real". It's not an avatar attempting to look like something it's not. The robot is so damn cool I can scarcely put it into words. This is what happens when tinkertoys-go-wild.
The two things that (slightly) bring the flick down: 1.) the astronaught. Not the character, the actor. Dax Sheperd is waaay too conscious of the fact that he's doing a kids' movie and he doesn't really get into the role the way (I thought) he should have. I won't reveal the twist about his character, but I saw it comin', man (especially the way the older brother first looked at him and the "admiral" card). 2.) the chase on the Zorgons' ship. I don't know why, but this part of the flick just seemed to drag on longer than it should have. It ends with the return of the robot, so I felt great about that. The aliens themselves had an appropriatley nasty design.
Now, I haven't read the book so I don't know when it was written. The reason I bring this up is because I like the way the movie uses things like the Zorgons and the "cryo-freeze" to play with the conventions of sci-fi movies. They joke about how the house is flying through space, yet somehow all the utilities still work. Usually sci-fi explorers have cool spacesuits, the astronaught in this one wears the suit of a deep-sea diver. Plus, there's what we come to learn is Zathura itself. Again, I won't reveal, but I didn't see it coming.
All in all, Favs made a really cool family flick (good enough to show just how creatively bankrupt that genre really is). If he can bring this sorta "whimsy" to Mars (and survive the outrageous demands of his producer, this weird-looking red-head sumbitch) then I'm all for it.
There's the positive, now for the negative. Needless to say, I disagree with the below view... he seems to complain that the kids act like... brothers... and didn't like the practical effects, which were some of my favorite parts. But that is me and this is The Last Westerner! Enjoy!
I had mixed feelings walking into Zathura. First, it was directed by Jon Favreau who I think is a really cool guy. He has acted in and also directed some really slick pieces of work like Made, Elf, and Swingers, all three movies showing a lot of promise for his career in both fields. When I heard that he was doing a science fiction movie called Zathura (knowing nothing about it at the time) I thought it was another step to expand his versatility as a director. I mean, who really would of thought that the same director of Made would make a film like Elf, both of which I really enjoyed. Then came along all talk about how Favreau was using a lot of physical effects instead of going all CGI, kind of trying to bring back the style of adventure films we loved watching as kids but making a film that todays kids can enjoy and one the make adults reminisce of their childhood, and I have to say that caught my interest. But then I read what the plot was about; two brothers find a board game called "Zathura," when the game is played it hurtles the boys and their house into space to encounter many different adventurous and dangerous scenarios on each turn that they make that test their bravery and acceptance of each other. Nice! Just another Jumanji! This really wasn't much of a stretch of the imagination of author Chris Van Allsburg, but that aside I was holding out hope that Farveau could make a movie that would capture my and Van Allsburgs imitation the way Jumanji didn't. Should I have held my breath?
Sadly, no. This film disappointed me greatly in every aspect I was hoping it was going to be good. By using the practical physical effects, Farveau was trying to add a fifties flair to the movie that just stood out like bad prop against all the CGI they were using. The alien Zorgons looked like they dug through back lot dumpster bins and found the baby Godzilla suits from Roland Emmerichs movie. The layout and design of the actual board game of "Zathura" looked good and was done right; everything else just came off as tacky. This isn't to say that CGI space shot weren't done well, which they were, it was just such a stifling contrast it was hard for me to focus on one or the other.
The two Brothers. Oh Jesus the Brothers! Just thinking about these two makes me want to run and find the nearest chalkboard to drag my fingernails along so I can drown out their constant screeching bickering that is still ringing in my head. Seriously, I don't know what the screenwriter and Farveau were really trying to accomplish here. Through the whole movie all these two do is fight. It's like you are babysitting these two bratty kids that you have no control over and you have to sit their and endure it because you are getting paid for it. Oh wait sucker! You actually paid to have this hell unleashed on you! I have a better idea for all you that are thinking about seeing this movie. Go find two kids that you know to be the most obnoxious kids on your block, baby sit them for about two hours, and make about twenty five bucks instead of losing nine. Sitting and watching them fight like brothers through most the movie I knew what it was ultimately going to come to in the end of the film, but the story didn't really make progress towards this predictable ending that when it does reach their turning point, it has no sincerity to it at all.
One thing I didn't expect to be saying about this film was that I liked something Jumanji did better, but here is comes. Jumanji did a much better, well actually, a fantastically better job at showing there was actually danger involved in playing the game. In Zathura the two brothers seemed so unconcerned with their fantastic situation that they were in and more enthralled with fighting with one another, that with every situation that came up, there never seemed to be any real threat to their wellbeing. Also their acting didn't really help because they didn't have much range between their different kind of emotions and reactions to the surrounding environment and events that were taking place. Everything would get a generic scream along with the blankest look of fear possible, ended with the two telling each other that is was their fault. Ugh.
One thing that this film did accomplish for me was three really good laughs. There are some almost brilliant lines in this movie that taste like Favreau's past films and make you think how good they were and that you would rather be watching one of them instead. But this is just a nugget of brown sugar hidden in a bowl of the plainest, driest, coldest oatmeal you have ever had. In the end, the reason I wanted to see this movie was to judge how Favreau could handle his next upcoming project, John Carter of Mars. After seeing Zathura I'm honestly a little worried. He did fine with integrating all the CGI but that's not the only thing that I want from and for John Carter of Mars. The last thing I really need is a straight forward adaptation of the material. I want someone who loves and understands the material or at least the type of story that John Carter character takes place in. Hopefully Zathura is a stepping stone for Favreau and he can learn from what he did wrong and make John Carter of Mars oh so right. Let's hope…
-The Last Westerner