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By Pete Vonder Haar | November 12, 2005

With the recent flood of shallow kids’ movies that are more concerned with selling soundtracks than actually entertaining their so-called target audience, it’s easy to forget that there are still movies aimed at youngsters that can entertain without succumbing to focus groupthink. Parents may find themselves overwhelmed by family friendly garbage like Chicken Little, “Madagascar,” or Herbie: Fully Loaded, but a few quality films always manage to slip through. This year has already seen the likes of enjoyable fare such as Sky High and Wallace and Gromit, and now “Zathura,” based on the book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburgh, author of “Jumanji” and The Polar Express.

Six year-old Danny and ten year-old Walter find themselves left alone by their busy father one afternoon (Lisa, their sister, effectively removes herself from ensuing events for over half the movie). Walter (Josh Hutcherson) can’t be bothered with his annoying younger sibling, so Danny (Jonah Bobo), in an effort to amuse himself, picks through the basement of Dad’s house and discovers an old wind-up space adventure game called Zathura. Walter refuses to participate due to Danny’s propensity for cheating, but this doesn’t last long, as a sudden meteor shower in the living room serves notice that things are not as they were. Further investigation leads to the boys’ discovery that the house is now cruising through outer space, and each turn played leads to another dilemma that must be addressed. The catch is, the boys have to keep playing if they want to finish the game and, assumedly, return home.

“Zathura” is superior to other films of its ilk in a number of ways. Perhaps most significant is the lack of weary pop culture in-jokes, which litter similar films (especially those released by DreamWorks) like so many rat droppings. An early scene where the brothers argue over whether they’re going to watch SportsCenter or Sponge Bob (which isn’t exactly unheard of) is pretty much it, and there’s a refreshingly small amount of product placement. We’re not beaten over the head with the main theme either, which concerns the importance of – wait for it – family, and both of the child actors handle themselves, well, like children. Which is to say they don’t speak in one-liners or tiresome catch phrases. Give equal credit to screenwriter David Koepp for giving them believable dialogue and director Jon Favreau, who proves he has a knack for directing kids. Hell, even “Without A Paddle’s” Dax Shepard is convincing as the astronaut stranded in the game for the last 15 years.

Of course, being aimed at grade-schoolers means there have to be sacrifices: plot, for one. “Zathura” isn’t much more than a series of predicaments, though it’s amusing to watch how the boys and the astronaut deal with everything from defective robots to alien lizard invaders. Some will probably harp on the movie’s lack of scientific accuracy, which really is a logical complaint to make about a movie where a board game creates its own alternate reality. Just shut up and roll with it.

For me, the best part of the movie concerned the aforementioned alien lizard-men, called the Zorgons. As a fan of the Gorn from the old “Star Trek” series, let me just say that it’s a rare movie indeed that can’t be improved by giant walking crocodiles carrying machetes. The Zorgons are actually pretty scary, which is something kids need, in my opinion. Too many of the newer movies aimed at them soften any potentially frightening moments so as not to damage “the children.” F**k that. Kids like being scared. It’s fun, for one thing, and nothing gets the juices of your imagination flowing like lying in the dark, convinced some slimy, fanged horror is lurking under your bed, waiting for you to fall asleep so it can eat you. Obviously I’m not advocating inviting your kids to watch “Suspiria” or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” but there’s nothing wrong with the occasionally scary-a*s monster that gets his comeuppance from our pre-adolescent heroes.

“Zathura” is a low-key, warm-without-being-schmaltzy childhood adventure story that will engage younger viewers without driving their parents too crazy. And if you’re going to sit in the dark without speaking to your child for 100 minutes and call it “quality time” anyway, you could do a lot worse than seeing this.

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