'Zathura' game for adventure

With all the recent movies being made out of video games, it's refreshingly retro to see one based on a board game.

Admittedly, the source is not a "real" game - it's no Battleship or Clue - but a fictitious one originating from the mind of Chris Van Allsburg.

"Zathura" is the third Hollywood venture for the prize-winning author, whose "Jumanji" and "The Polar Express" have spawned cinematic features. It's also the best of the adaptations, perfectly capturing the sense of wonder and peril as Van Allsburg's celebrated work.

What makes the fantasy elements seem particularly colorful is that the film immediately grounds the characters in reality.

Six-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) and his 10-year-old brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson) are at that age when fighting with each other is as commonplace as eating junk food. Danny hasn't developed any athletic skills yet, while Walter is obsessed with baseball and football. Danny considers his brother mean-spirited and condescending. Walter deems his sibling an underachieving wuss.

When their divorced dad (Tim Robbins) runs an errand, he leaves them under the care of their indifferent teen sister (Kristen Stewart), who would rather spend the weekend catching up on her beauty sleep.

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Columbia Pictures Photo

Josh Hutcherson, left, and Dax Shepard (in space suit) attempt to navigate their way back home in the space adventure "Zathura."

Walter banishes his younger brother to the basement of their "creepy old house," where Danny stumbles upon a board game left behind by the previous owners. The box boasts 1950s-style spacemen in fishbowl helmets beside sleek rocket ships. Danny dives right in to find "a game for two players" with a windup key, metal pieces and a spinning counter.

Unfortunately, Walter would rather watch "SportsCenter" than attempt another stupid game with his dorky brother - who'll probably just end up cheating anyway. But when Danny takes a solo test spin, the boys (and their house) are jettisoned into space, where they must find ways to avoid meteor showers, navigate black holes and thwart nasty reptilian aliens called Zorgons.

Movie

Zathura ***

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Two feuding siblings find a space-themed board game that unwillingly transports them into their own cosmic adventure. "Zathura" is the third Hollywood outing for author Chris Van Allsburg ("Jumanji," "The Polar Express"). It's also the best of the adaptations, perfectly capturing the writer's sense of wonder and peril.

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They realize the only way to get back home is to keep playing.

"Zathura" could fall prey to any number of pitfalls that routinely hinder youth-aimed adventure movies: an overreliance on digital effects, constant moralizing, kids who don't act their age. Director Jon Favreau ("Elf") expertly navigates around these modern traps. Despite a few well-placed profanities and teen Stewart's ogle-inducing outfits, there is a decidedly nostalgic feel to the picture.

No anachronisms creep in to disrupt the Cold War-era production design that the game generates. The boys' "futuristic" robot looks like it was built out of iron by Studebaker. The spaceships share more in common with "Invaders from Mars" than "Star Wars." When an astronaut (Dax Shepard from TV's "Punk'd") is introduced into the story, he appears to have just stepped out of Sputnik.

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Columbia Pictures Photo

Jonah Bobo, left, Kristen Stewart, Dax Shepard and Josh Hutcherson try to unlock the secrets of a powerful board game that has jettisoned them into space in "Zathura."

"Zathura" may propel its characters into deep space, but it's really a journey about everyone in a family learning to respect each other's gifts and shortcomings. ("There are some days, boys, when you got to grow up all at once," dad tells them.) That notion sounds pretty hokey on paper. Credit the deft touch of Van Allsburg that material like this comes across as sentimental rather than syrupy.

The film isn't structurally all that innovative; "Jumanji" explored this same concept 10 years ago. "Zathura" is simply a solid adventure with likable characters who are no better or worse than the neighborhood kid next door.

Their exploits may result in experiences that are scary and unnerving, yet few viewers who watch the movie would probably turn down the chance to open that dusty box and twist that tin key.

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