Zathura: A Space Adventure

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Jon Favreau’s film adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s children’s book, Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005) is the most visually arresting film of Favreau’s career. Zathura: A Space Adventure marked Favreau’s transition from small films to big budget blockbusters dominated by special effects. It was this film that landed Favreau his job helming Iron Man (2008) which launched the MCU. As much as the Marvel movies are reliant upon special effects, none of those movies look half as good as Zathura: A Space Adventure.

Essentially Zathura: A Space Adventure is a cosmic variation on Jumanji imbued with the cinematic sensibility of the Amblin films of the eighties. Favreau’s affection for films like the underrated Explorers (1985) and the overrated The Goonies (1985) is as obvious in Zathura: A Space Adventure as it is in his more recent Star Wars shows for Disney+. Favreau embraces the child logic of Chris Van Allsburg while simultaneously embracing the aesthetic of Industrial Light & Magic’s golden age when films such as Jurassic Park (1993) combined both practical and computer effects to bring the fantastic to life.

Zathura: A Space Adventure presages the wave of nostalgia for eighties era media as popularized by Stranger Things by more than a decade. Aside from the special effects, Favreau’s passion for the films of his youth gives him a confidence that few filmmakers working in the blockbuster idiom today possess. This rare attribute is the ability to see what is timeless for young people in films like Gremlins (1984) and Explorers (1985) and then transpose those qualities into a more contemporary cultural setting. What Favreau is doing as a director in Zathura: A Space Adventure isn’t homage or imitation but rather adaptation.

Personally, I’m not really that enthusiastic about most of Jon Favreau’s films, but it’s obvious that with Zathura: A Space Adventure he’s doing something more ambitious and interesting by opening up an intertextual discourse with his own most cherished movie going experiences. What keeps Zathura: A Space Adventure from becoming a classic is the often uneven and repetitive script by John Kramps and David Koepp (who has written a few of the films Favreau’s stylistic approach is drawing from). While their script may accomplish in half an hour what Christopher Nolan’s epic Interstellar (2014) set out to do in 169 grueling minutes of condescension, it never really finds its pace, losing momentum between eye-popping set pieces.

Zathura: A Space Adventure really only flopped because of its association with the film Jumanji (1995). Audiences didn’t grasp what Favreau was doing intertextually and rejected the film outright. To compound things, George Lucas and James Cameron had so popularized CGI effects at that point that the practical effects in Zathura: A Space Adventure weren’t the stylistic throwback audiences wanted or needed. Almost twenty years later, Zathura: A Space Adventure is exactly the kind of family friendly blockbuster Americans crave.