Zathura: A Space Adventure (2005)
★★★ / ★★★★
Danny (Jonah Bobo) and Walter (Josh Hutcherson) are brothers, six and ten years of age, respectively, who cannot help but squabble about every little thing. Regardless of the activity, one feels the need to triumph over the other. When their father (Tim Robbins) has to leave to make a special copy of a picture for his work, Danny finds a curious two-player board game underneath the stairs of the basement. Excited, he asks Walter to play. Although Walter refuses, Danny turns a key, pushes a button, and a card is released. On it is a warning of a meteor shower. A few seconds later, tiny rocks begin to bombard their new home. It appears the game has real repercussions.
Based on a book by Chris Van Allsburg, “Zathura: A Space Adventure” is exciting, fun, and has an obvious but important lesson about siblings learning to work together and love one another. The early scenes are very amusing because Danny and Walter reminded me of my brother and I back when we were younger. Although Walter is portrayed as the insensitive half, I understood Walter’s attitude about not wanting to play with his little brother because Danny is not very good at playing sports and he has the tendency to cheat or cry when things do not go his way. When they whine to their dad, as shrill as they sound, it feels very close to actuality. I was surprised that the two are not shown ending up on the floor and throwing punches at each other.
As the unlikely duo take more turns, there is more humor accompanied by increasingly impressive special and visual effects. For example, Lisa (Kirsten Stewart), Walter and Danny’s sister, is rather cold toward her siblings. She would rather sleep and look pretty for her upcoming date after she is asked by her dad to watch over the boys since they have the tendency to be at each other’s throats. Later on, her coldness takes on a physical manifestation in which she is put into cryonic sleep by the game. Ironic happenstances as such allow us to breathe between the more intense scenes.
However, I wished that the fast-paced action is not impeded by the arrival of the astronaut (Dax Shepard). Although the astronaut has some funny lines dispersed throughout and is very useful in quickly getting the kids out of dangerous situations, I was more interested in the lightbulbs that go off in Danny and Walter’s heads as they are challenged by whatever the board has in store for them. It might have taken them some time to extricate themselves from their predicaments, but it is preferable because this is their story.
The film, based on the screenplay by David Koepp and John Kamps, takes its biggest risk by introducing Zorgons, big lizards with teeth that have an affinity for heat. As they take over the house, our protagonists are reduced to hiding and running away from being eaten. The creativity and energy of “Zathura,” directed by Jon Favreau, appeals to kids as well as adults because it is thrilling and quite smart. It is a fantasy, action-adventure that is rooted in something real.
★★★ / ★★★★
The constantly bullied Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) was the son of an emotionally distant factory owner (Jonathan Hyde) who stumbled upon a magical board game called Jumanji. After a row with his father about being sent to boarding school, he rolled the dice and he was sucked into the game and lived in the jungle for 26 years. The new residents (Kirsten Dunst, Bradley Pierce) of the former Parrish mansion then found the game and started playing, all the while unaware of the dangerous situations of which they were about to face. With the help of Alan and his crush (now 26 years older played by Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt), the four had to finish the game in order restore peace in their town. “Jumanji” was one of those films I watched so many times when I was a kid because I couldn’t get enough of its manic energy and wondrous sense of adventure. It had emotional resonance for me because the heart of the picture was the bond between the father and the son and at the time my dad was in America while my mom, brother and I were in the Philippines. Every time I saw the movie, I thought about my dad and how much I missed him. I identified with Dunst’s character–how imaginative she was and how she had to take care of her brother. I guess it helped that Pierce looked somewhat like my brother with his curly hair and wisecracks. One of the elements I found to be most effective in the film was its increasing amount of danger every time a character rolled the dice. The board game started off with giant African bats and only became more impressive from there. I found my eyes being fixated on the screen in suspense just in case something would suddenly pop out from nowhere. To balance the excitement and suspense, the picture also had a great sense of humor. I loved the small details like a rhinoceros being barely able to keep up during the stampede, Hyde also playing the villainous Van Pelt whose goal was to kill Alan (talk about father-son issues), all the looting that happened in stores when the town was in absolute chaos, and even the dated CGI (those creepy monkeys!) was all part of the fun. It didn’t take itself too seriously but it didn’t dumb down the material for its audiences so it became a solid popcorn entertainment. The film could have been stronger if it had more scenes between Alan when he was a kid and his father. There was a real pain and sadness in their strained relationship. The revelations that happened much later would have been more moving and bittersweet. For a movie being older than 15 years, “Jumanji,” based on the novel by Chris Van Allsburg and directed by Joe Johnston, is still fresh and better than most kid-friendly adventure movies out there today.
The Polar Express (2004)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Billy (Hayden McFarland) was convinced that the whole concept of Santa Claus was just a myth. In order to have proof whether or not Santa existed, he tried to stay up until Christmas Eve to see who would put presents under the Christmas tree. When a mysterious train full of kids arrived and the conductor (Tom Hanks) told Billy they were heading to the North Pole to see Santa Claus and his elves, Billy chose to get on board. Based on the children’s book of the same name by Chris Van Allsburg, I consider Robert Zemeckis’ “The Polar Express” to be a modern classic. I remember watching the film for the first time when it came out and I was surprised to have been deeply moved by Billy’s journey toward his own version of truth. Yes, we all know that the portly man in red who rides reindeers doesn’t exist, but it was easy to connect with the movie because I onced believed in Santa Claus and remembered the magic and joy I felt after willing myself to wake up past midnight and found presents under the Christmas tree. Furthermore, the picture’s animation was a breakthough despite criticisms of the unmoving characters’ facial expressions above the eyes (when we express emotions, we wrinkle our foreheads, move our eyebrows, et cetera). Some critics cited that the characters looked creepy because of the hybrid between real actors and animation. However, every time I watch this movie, I fail to notice such flaws. I was preoccupied with the characters’ intense experiences with the train’s technical difficulties. The train going off-track because the railroad had frozen over was incredibly suspenseful and the very elusive golden ticket would make everyone’s eyes dance across the screen. Nitpicking flaws in the animaton was farthest from my mind. The best scene in the film was its climax. Before Santa Claus appeared, the other kids from the train (Nona Gaye, Peter Scolari, Eddie Deezen) enthusiastically talked about the bells they heard and the beautiful sounds they made. But Billy couldn’t hear the bells because he didn’t believe. And since we saw the movie from Billy’s perspective, we, too, couldn’t hear the bells (perhaps because we no longer believe). That scene was a defining moment which made me think of powerful metaphors from other classic films like the dying plant in Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial” and the black monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” “The Polar Express” is a triumph because it went beyond being a typical Christmas movie with a happy but ultimately empty ending. It took risks by forming a synergy between visuals and story while adding just the right amount of danger, humor, sadness, and wonder in the protagonist’s journey toward self-discovery.