Director Jon Favreau is known for bringing iconic heroes to the screen. In 2008, he brought Iron Man to life from the pages of Marvel Comics. Most recently, he crafted a legendary story for a bounty hunter named Din Djarin with the acclaimed Star Wars series, The Mandalorian.
But before Favreau became a franchise favorite, he directed a family-friendly space adventure that brought a renewed sense of wonder to adults and children. Adapted from a standalone spin-off novel of Jumanji, this sci-fi movie captures the pains of growing up while packing in fun action sequences and surprising twists.
We are talking about none other than the underrated Zathura: A Space Adventure. Now streaming on Netflix, the 2005 movie stars a pre-Twilight Kristen Stewart and pre-Hunger Games Josh Hutcherson in an unforgettable story about the bonds of family and the power of endless imagination.
Based on Chris Van Allsburg’s 2002 novel, Zathura features a board game that transports its players to another dimension. Like Van Allsburg’s 1981 book Jumanji and its subsequent 1995 movie adaptation, the movie is centered around a game that must be played and completed for life to return to normal. In the case of Zathura, the board game transports the protagonists’ home into outer space, where the characters must dodge meteor showers, black holes, and space monsters.
The movie follows a pair of brothers, Walter (Hutcherson) and his younger brother Danny (Jonah Bobo). Along with their older teenage sister, Lisa (Stewart), the siblings are staying at their dad’s (Tim Robbins) new home — a large, creaky house with a dusty board game hidden in the basement.
Dealing with their parents' recent divorce and their workaholic dad, the brothers have a lot of tension between them. Walter feels he’s too old to play with his little brother, and Danny feels inadequate compared to his older brother. When a bored but curious Danny finds Zathura and begins to play the game, it launches the house into space, causing the brothers — and even their icy sister — to not only work together but learn to appreciate each other to survive the game.
From its opening credits sequence, you begin to see what we now recognize as trademarks of Favreau’s style. Visually, the close-up lighting and shadowing of the board game recall the detailed shots of Iron Man’s suit or even Captain America’s shield. In many ways, Favreau established the look of Marvel films, and you can see hints of that here in Zathura. Also, for an early 2000s film, the special effects don’t look too dated. The CGI is pretty seamless, and any clunky effects are forgiven thanks to the zany tone of this is a fantastical movie.
However, what makes Zathura stand out is its non-stop narrative action and the compelling brotherly drama between Walter and Danny. The latter’s emotional resonance is in large part thanks to the appearance of the Astronaut (Dax Shepard), who arrives at the house to guide the boys on how to navigate the rest of the game. Between those three, this is really their movie, which also makes you question why they included Lisa, who spends half the film cryo-frozen state.
Zathura: A Space Adventure will not be what Jon Favreau is remembered for, neither will it inspire a nostalgia discourse as a millennial or Gen Z childhood favorite. But it is an exciting movie to watch or revisit to see how Favreau’s directorial style has evolved. Even more so, it’s fascinating to see how the film remains feeling like a timeless sci-fi adventure.
Zathura: A Space Adventure is now streaming on Netflix.