Recently Rated Movies #49: This Is One Of My Favreau Things

Zathura: A Space Adventure
Dir: Jon Favreau // 2005 [DVD]

Cinema 4 Rating: 7

Like it or not, we are the sum of our past experiences. There are very few decisions that we make which aren't influenced by what has happened to us at similar points or situations in our pasts. You know, that whole Once Bitten, Twice Shy thing? (And if you think I am quoting Great White, I would have the Duke remind you with a six-pack of Squirt upside yo' haid that he and I are old Ian Hunter fans from waaaaaayyyy back before that nearly identical though duller '80s version.) And so it goes for our decisions pertaining to movies. There are a variety of reasons why one may not wish to see a film at the theatre, but I would warrant that a major one is our past experience either with an actor, a director, or a particular genre.

Enter Zathura. A film adaptation of a children's book by the incredible stylist Chris Van Allsburgh, who produces illustrated marvels like other people pop out bratty children who will never appreciate those books half enough as they should, Zathura came and went in the theatres in November 2005. At least, it did for me. Instead, I went to the theatres to see Good Night. And Good Luck. and Pride and Prejudice around that time, and my reasons were my past experiences with a previous movie version of one of Van Allsburgh's books. The movie was Jumanji, released almost a full decade earlier, and apart from my initial resistance to CGI effects back in the day, the movie left me decidedly unmoved. That is, except that it moved me back into my personal library to check out the book again and recapture the magic within its pages that the movie somehow seem to miss.

Such was my disappointment with a film version of Van Allsburgh, that I chose to skip altogether the 2004 release of The Polar Express, but part of this might be the fact that the characters in the trailer frightened the hell out of me. Or maybe it was the thought that Robert Zemeckis was being allowed to direct again. (I used to like him until he shat out Forrest Gump, another book I liked before the movie came along.) I have since seen The Polar Express on DVD, and my reaction was not unlike that of my Jumanji experience: not a bad movie, just not a good one, and not a shine on the material within the book, even if the animation in Express is expressly designed to replicate the look of the book. (My ratings for both? A mere "5".)

And so it was, I walked in and out of numerous theatres in the month of November 2005, cocking an eye at the marquee at Zathura, and then not seeing it. Problem was, I did want to see it, because I knew Jon Favreau, the writer-creator-star of Swingers, a personal favorite, was the director. And yet I did not go, solely because of my Van Allsburgh experience 10 years earlier. And I had precedence in dissing Big Jon, too: I had also decided to pass on Elf, even though I knew he was behind the camera, because at the time (2003), I hadn't really committed to watching Will Ferrell with anything except disdain for his unchained, scene-savaging self. As I have recounted elsewhere, it took Anchorman to make me turn around on Ferrell for good, and it was a not-long-after viewing of Elf (actually, it was about four or five viewings over one weekend) to solidify that status. Watching Elf, I was struck with the notion that perhaps Favreau, who was dealing with special effects-heavy comedy for the first time, might turn out to be like an '00s-version of Rob Reiner, previously known as an actor who then surprisingly took the reins on numerous, highly inventive projects through the '80s and early '90s, all of differing styles and genres, and succeeding wildly. Despite thinking this, I still skipped Zathura.

Boy, what a dope I was. Upon finally renting it, I realized that I have yet again replicated my experience with Elf. And it makes me doubly angry about not seeing it in a theatre, because I had already caught the earlier film, and should have just gone on the good will of Favreau's name alone. The film itself is no earth-shaker, despite the fact it causes a suburban house to uproot itself and shoot into outer space. It's not like it is groundbreaking by any means. It is only a family film, but it is a family film of the finest distinction: one that does not talk down in any way to its audience, nor does it insult. You are expected to go along on the same voyage of discovery that its youthful protagonists do, and immerse yourself in a shared joy of wonder with them at the events in which they find themselves. Yes, I said youthful, and herein lies my other and most pressing concern which caused me not to see the film in the theatre: The Goonies Effect.

Even though I enjoyed The Goonies upon its initial release a zillion years ago in 1985, subsequent viewings both a couple weeks later and one and two decades on have left me with some definite proof as to its effect on me: it gives me a major fucking headache. Though there are some definite joys within the film that I acknowledge to this day, what I cannot stand, then or now, is the horrid child-acting. And only some of it comes from a Corey. (Feldman, in this case.) Sure, some of the kids have grown up and gone on to respectable careers (Josh Brolin, Sean Astin, Martha Plimpton), but overall -- and this might be the result of a Richard Donner direction, or maybe not -- these kids yell non-stop in this film. Every line is delivered in this grating and over-emphatic style, and after an hour-and-a-half, I end up possessing separate, bedeviling little headaches from each and every child's voice. (And, thank goodness Short Round didn't take up acting full time...)

And thus, my chief fear in seeing Zathura was that I would be stuck in this spacebound house with two shrieking fiends. I should have trusted that director Favreau, who has shown a very sure hand with actors thus far and is no slouch onscreen himself, would prove to be an equally steadying influence on his minor charges. And that is what occurred: yes, there are a couple scenes where the boys are bickering and yelling at each other, but the style is more naturalistic, which adds greatly to the story given that they are surrounded by such fantastic elements. He even manages to pull something of an acting performance out of Dax Shepard, of whom I have been underwhelmed in anything else in which I have seen him (Idiocracy, My Name is Earl). The adventure in the film is light, somewhat in the mode of Joe Dante's Explorers, though with a slightly darker edge since we are really unsure at certain points just what exactly the board game Zathura really represents. In fact, that is exactly what the movie seems like: an attempt to do the sort of thing in which Dante used to specialize. And seeing the fun special effects and action squished onto a television made me realize that I would be sucked into it even more if I had seen it on a big screen.

As for Favreau, I pledge (at least until he makes an utter dog of a movie, which I doubt he will) to see all of his directorial efforts in a theatre seat, medium-sized cherry Icee in hand, reflecting back on how I messed up on his last couple of films. His next release will be the big-budget version of Iron Man, so that's a no-brainer for me, but after that, I will trust his judgment.


Anonymous said…
Imagine watching it on an airplane, the second movie on a 10 hour flight....

Chewy................... enjoyed it enough

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