Zathura: How Jon Favreau’s Jumanji Spinoff Failed and Why It Deserved Better

By Drew Dietsch | 3 months ago

Zathura review

Zathura: A Space Adventure was pretty much doomed from the outset. Based on a book by Jumanji author Chris Van Allsburg, director Jon Favreau’s sci-fi spin on the “board game comes to life” concept had so much working against it. It was never going to get a fair shake and it was promptly buried at the box office and mostly forgotten about.

Fifteen years later, it’s time to admire this clever kids flick for what it is: a fantastic adventure story that not only stands as the best entry in the Jumanji franchise but as a stellar movie all on its own.

Why This Space Adventure Deserved Better

Zathura kids
(from left) Jonah Bobo as Danny, Kristen Stewart as Lisa, Dax Shepard as the astronaut, and Josh Hutcherson as Walter

Jon Favreau was coming off the success of the family Christmas comedy Elf. He’d shown just how stylish and sharp he could be with a film intended for all audiences. His decision to make Zathura was an attempt to show how he could once again handle all-ages material with his trademarked wit and charm. And this time, he was going to take special effects and genre storytelling to an even higher level.

Zathura excels at these elements. Favreau insisted on using as many practical effects as possible. He employed Stan Winston studios – who would also work on Favreau’s next film, Iron Man – to create the lizard-like antagonists, the Zorgons. These creatures are just plain awesome. With CG becoming the norm for creature creation, Favreau was committed to building actual effects that the actors could interact with and respond to. Bless him and the many artists that brought the Zorgons to life. They are a huge highlight of the film.

 effects
Behind the scenes with one of the Zorgon puppets at Stan Winston Studios

That mentality extends to the entire production side of Zathura. The story primarily takes place in one location (a house) and Favreau has to turn it into a floating spaceship of sorts. It gets pummeled and picked apart as the movie goes along, and the design behind those aesthetic decisions adds real character to the structure. Not to mention that Favreau shot real models of the house for use in the film. Add to that the wonderful ’50s sci-fi style that informs all the design decisions and you’ve got a movie with a very specific visual attitude. Favreau knows how to polish effects and make everything feel tactile. It’s a masterful touch.

But, Zathura isn’t simply a technical delight. The script by David Koepp & John Kamps does so much right. It strips down the story to a much simpler structure than the original Jumanji by minimizing the number of necessary characters. It also focuses better on the young protagonists and their relationship. The drama might be simple but it’s extremely effective. And when we learn more about the mysterious astronaut character that shows up later, it all pays off thanks to some very smart first act setup.

Zathura astronaut
The stranded astronaut’s spacesuit is another example of Zathura‘s cool design choices

Zathura also features a truly underrated score from composer John Debney. The opening credits and the main theme nail the mood and intention of the movie in the very first seconds. There is a 100% commitment to the grandiose adventure tone in Debney’s score. He takes what could be perceived as a small movie (due to the single house location) and makes it feel epic. “Underrated” gets thrown around way too much, but it might actually apply to the work Debney puts in for Zathura.

Still, Zathura knows it has to be an intimate movie because of its scale. And while there is a goofy little romance implied with Lisa’s attraction to the astronaut, the real emotional drama of the movie is a relationship with two brothers (not Two Brothers). Their conflict is simplistic but handled with earnestness. It helps that the entire cast is playing everything pitch-perfect. There’s not a weak link in the ensemble’s chain.

Zathura is a kids movie that doesn’t demean its target audience, either in the story, characters, or film production. This is a solid A-grade experience for young viewers and kids at heart.

Why Zathura Failed

zathura title
The opening credits and artwork for the Zathura board game are marvelous with their retro style

Whenever we talk about how a movie “failed,” we’re often referring to its general reception in some way. When it comes to critical reception, Zathura didn’t fail at all. It currently has the second-highest Tomatometer percentage in the Jumanji franchise, trailing only a single percent behind Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.

So, it wasn’t critics that disliked or ignored the film. It was audiences. Zathura opened in the number two slot on its opening weekend, being beaten by Disney’s Chicken Little in its second weekend at #1. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire released the following weekend and Zathura plummeted almost 62% to the #5 slot. It took any potential target audience Zathura could have hoped for.

Chicken Little
Zack Braff as a panic-stricken fowl beat a film from one of the key architects behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe and The Mandalorian

It didn’t help that there was a creative clash about how to market the movie. Allsburg and Favreau said that even though the overall premise was similar, Zathura was not the same kind of movie as Jumanji. Unfortunately, the studio wanted to try and use the Jumanji name to help market this movie. It made people confused or resistant to what just looked like “Jumanji in space.” Even now, this very piece has contributed to tying this movie to another one.

That’s unfair. Zathura doesn’t deserve to be smothered by Jumanji‘s shadow. That film has a lot of generational nostalgia due to the inclusion of Robin Williams, and that attachment might cloud how lovers of Jumanji view Favreau’s standalone triumph.

Zathura shouldn’t be left to collect dust in the basement. It needs to be taken out and played. Yes, some things might seem familiar but they are exciting and dangerous in brand new ways. Take flight into the unknown, space cadet. There is peril, glory, and majesty out there in the depths of space. Zathura is waiting.

Zathura game
Tell me you wouldn’t play that!

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