As someone who was brought up on the early Dr. Seuss books - "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" and "To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street" -- and went on from there to the entire oeuvre of John R. Tunis; and who raised my own children on Maurice Sendak and Isaac Bashevis Singer's tales of Chelm - it is a curse on my life that a no-talent like Chris Van Allsburg has had no less than three feature films made of his work. First there was "Jumanji," then "The Polar Express."
The latest is "Zathura," a book so blank, so affectless, so inept in maintaining anything resembling forward motion that it is a wonder it ever found a publisher. And yet - and yet - the movie, infinitely better than the book, which reads like an old Monkey Ward catalogue - has some very lovely and witty things for us to enjoy. Two brothers, 10-year-old Walter and 6-year-old Danny, are left to fend for themselves one afternoon at their (recently divorced) dad's house. Their older sister Lisa is asleep in her room and has promised to kill them if they disturb her. Danny tries to get Walter to play something - anything - with him but to no avail.
Then Danny discovers, in a forgotten corner of the basement, an old game - a relic of the 1950s. It's called Zathura, and it comes with two crude little space ships that move with a clink and a clank when a key is turned and a card comes up with directions like "METEOR SHOWER: TAKE COVER. Or YOUR ROBOT IS DEFECTIVE; BACK TWO SPACES. He persuades Walter to play the game, and sure enough there is a meteor shower that peppers the room with smoking holes in the floor; the boys even have to take cover in the fireplace. Then they see that this space game has taken them, and the house, and their sister, into outer space. And soon they realize that they'll have to finish the game if they're to get back to earth and home again.
I won't enumerate all the trials they encounter, including the cryonic freezing of Lisa in the bathroom, but director Jon Favreau keeps stirring the pot with new challenges for the boys. It's only toward the end, when they meet a lost astronaut and the film runs out of ideas, that we lose touch with the very wonderful adventure we've been having.
Favreau has cast the boys well (Josh Hutcherson is Walter and Jonah Bobo is Danny), and Lisa (Kristen Stewart) is the perfectly annoying older sibling. And Tim Robbins as the father is fine in a cameo, as is Dax Shepard in the thankless role of the astronaut. So go and enjoy the movie, but don't even think of buying the book; it defines that grand old word 'dreck.'