Jumanji: The Next Level film might be the third film to include Jumanji in the title but it is actually the fourth film in the whole franchise. It’s easy to forget that Zathura: A Space Adventure is part of the same universe. Mostly because both the writer of the original books, Chris Van Allsburg, and director, Jon Favreau, wanted to distance it from the Robin Williams film. Favreau, in particular, didn’t like the film at all and wanted to make sure that people knew it. Yet, the studio was keen to show that both films were connected and Zathura is officially the second film in the Jumanji franchise. I’d never actually seen it, though, as I was 17 when it came out. It definitely wasn’t the kind of film the 17-year-old me would have been comfortable admitting to wanting to watch. So, I decided it was finally time. After all, it got a much better critical reaction than the first Jumanji film even if it didn’t do incredibly well at the box office. The opposite of Robin Williams’ film. Was the space adventure actually better or was this another time when the critics were way off in their assessment?
On the surface, Zathura: A Space Adventure isn’t really wildly different from Jumanji. It involves two siblings finding a mysterious board game and finding themselves in a difficult situation. The biggest difference is that now they’re in space and not the jungle. Oh, and it stars a pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson and a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart. Unlike Jumanji, which sometimes gets distracted along the way, Zathura sticks to the narrative structure of the game. It knows what it is trying to do and makes sure the story gets across. While it uses CGI, it doesn’t rely on it too much. It makes sure that the emotional journey is the focal point.
Walter and Danny Budwing are the duo who find the game this time around. They are two brothers who are trying to deal with their parents divorce. Walter, as the older brother, is irritated by his younger brother and often overlooks or dismisses him. The pair argue all of the time and fight for the attention of their father. When Danny finds the game, Walter doesn’t want anything to do with it but they are soon both drawn in. I guess a meteor shower in your living room or the fact that your house is now in space will do that. With every roll of the dice, the brothers have to work together to stay alive and finish the game. But can they do it?
Zathura is actually a really enjoyable film and it does a really good job of getting to the emotional crux of the story. The storyline of the two brothers learning to work together is much stronger than the narrative of Jumanji. Yet, it’s hard to deny that it feels as though something is missing. The reason that the original film did so well was because of Robin Williams. He brought something extra to the film and made it way more impactful than it should have been. Zathura doesn’t have a big character to bring everything together. Dax Shepard is clearly in that kind of role but it just ends up being a bit underwhelming.
That’s not to say that the two young leads aren’t strong performers. They definitely carry the film and are a huge positive in the film. They both make a great impression and handle all of the elements well. They’re probably the main reason that Zathura was much better than I was expecting. It is incredibly watchable and fun. Jon Favreau is a strong director but this film never quite gets beyond its basic elements.