(director: Jon Favreau; screenwriters: David Koepp/John Kamps/based on the book by Chris Van Allsburg; cinematographer: Guillermo Navarro; editor: Dan Lebental; music: John Debney; cast: Josh Hutcherson (Walter), Jonah Bobo (Danny), Dax Shepard (the Astronaut), Kristen Stewart (Lisa), Tim Robbins (Dad); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG; producers: William Teitler/Scott Kroopf/Michael De Luca; Columbia Pictures; 2005)

“Drips with 1950s nostalgia.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A de facto sequel to “Jumanji,” based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 32-page book. Allsburg also wrote The Polar Express. Zathura follows the same type of formula as Jumanji, of kids faced with danger when a board game gets out of control. The actor-turned-filmmaker Jon Favreau (“Elf”) helms this kidpic with passion for the kiddies and leaves some love for the adult set (I cynically say mostly Hollywood suits anticipating big box office returns). Writers David Koepp and John Kamps keep the narrative hopping with fun and games.

A harried divorced art designer dad (Tim Robbins) has the squabbling kids for a few days, as they shuttle back and forth from mom and dad. He plays catch on his expansive suburban lawn with 10-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and the six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo), but that ends in bad feelings because each sibling competes for dad’s attention and when not doing that are busy bickering with each other. The more imaginative Danny always loses and the more athletic Walter always bullies him, and their hot 13-year-old sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) treats both brothers with contempt as she’s more interested in sleeping, listening to rock music with her headphones, and roaming around the house in boxers as if she were posing for a girlie ‘zine. Dad has to go to the office for a Saturday meeting and leaves them under Lisa’s uncaring care.

Danny when mischievously lowered in a dumbwaiter to the basement finds an old space adventure game called Zathura that goes back to the 1950s. The kitschy sci-fi windup metal board game releases a card saying “Meteor shower, take evasive action” and that launches a meteor attack in the house. The kids and their house then go on a galactic thrill ride.

The house as a space ship takes flight through space and at each windup with a key, a card is released that may bring the players such things as a demented robot who starts wrecking the house, heat-seeking lizardlike creatures called Zorgons that attack them as meat to satisfy their insatiable appetite, Lisa becoming cryonically immobilized (stuck in a frozen state for most of the film), and finally an intergalactic spaceship battle. It also includes a visit from a stranded astronaut (Dax Shepard), a former loser in Zathura who has been spacebound for a number of years, that the card orders the kids to rescue and that leads to uncovering a mysterious bond between the protective astronaut and the siblings.

The game players are frightened because if they stop playing or finish the game and reach the planet Zathura, they will be trapped in outer space forever. It’s up to Danny to win and save the day, as winning will return things to normal. But the odds would seem against Danny because he always loses and even when in peril the brothers can’t stop squabbling.

The lessons come fast and heavy about a dysfunctional family forced to learn to play nice and to cooperate with each other or perish. For me it was just another kids left “home alone” pic that drips with 1950s nostalgia (it also might be too dark for youngsters). Everything was low-tech in this fantasy fable flick (which I felt satisfied with), but I had some problems as it runs with its sibling rivalry theme for suburbanites much in the same gooey manner as does Steven Spielberg’s kiddie “E.T.” sci-fi treatment. I must say that the two young brothers were outstanding in how they managed to carry the pic when Robbins disappeared after his early scene.

REVIEWED ON 11/18/2005 GRADE: B-