Before we pronounce judgment on "Zathura: A Space Adventure," let's clear up the confusion on pronouncing the title, a matter that stumped contestants in a marketing exercise for the movie on Donald Trump's "The Apprentice."
Put the accent on the second syllable - "za-THUR-a" - and you'll do fine. And you could do a lot worse than take the kids to see this spunky, good-natured family flick that offers plenty of pyrotechnics and a refreshing dynamic of brotherly love-hate from the movie's two endearing child leads.
On the heels of "Chicken Little," "Zathura" is a fine lead-in to the holiday movie season, with a brisk pace, action and humor that will appeal to all ages, and a simple yet affecting message that unity over disharmony makes life on the homefront sweeter.
A close cousin to Robin Williams' 1995 hit "Jumanji" (both movies are adapted from similarly themed children's books by Chris Van Allsburg), "Zathura" is a better picture, relying on heart and hearth instead of the earlier film's suffocating star power and special effects.
Though most of the movie is set in space, it takes place almost entirely within a family house, the confines cramping the story to a degree. And while some of the action has a sameness about it, actor-turned-director Jon Favreau ("Elf") compensates nicely for the cloistered setting and repetitive visuals by keeping the story solidly focused on his young heroes rather than letting the cosmic surroundings overwhelm things.
Like "Jumanji," "Zathura" deals with a fantastical board game that transports players to way-out adventures.
Ten-year-old Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and 6-year-old Danny (Jonah Bobo) are at that perpetually bickering phase brothers often go through. Walter's good at sports and has a wisenheimer attitude toward little brother, while Danny's a klutz with a dreamy nature.
They're clearly on the path toward fractured teen years, Walter bound for the popular clique, Danny headed for the geek squad, longing for his brother's attention but likely to remain stuck in his shadow.
When their divorced dad (Tim Robbins) leaves the boys in the neglectful care of their teen sister (Kristen Stewart) while he runs an errand, Danny stumbles on a dusty board game, Zathura, left by a previous resident of their big, creaky house.
When Danny takes a turn on the game board, the brothers find themselves and their house hurled into space and threatened by meteor showers, a black hole, a deranged robot and spaceships loaded with carnivorous reptiles called Zorgons.
Guided by an astronaut (Dax Shepard) who drops in to help (and conveniently explain some of the rules), the brothers find that whatever action transpires on the game board comes to pass in real life.
The filmmakers craft cleverly surreal visual effects of the house on its little star trek, while the mayhem indoors will thrill kids who have ever fantasized about taking a baseball bat to their parents' treasured breakables.
Screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps do a solid job fleshing out the picture book with witty banter and character flourishes. With just a few minutes on screen, Robbins brings a full-bodied portrait of sturdy paternalism as a dad juggling work and parenting.
The soul of "Zathura" is the boys, though. Hutcherson, the marvelous lead in this year's undiscovered gem "Little Manhattan," has the presence of an adult in a child's body, while Bobo possesses the wide eyes and plaintive voice to tug on the most unyielding heartstrings.
"Zathura: A Space Adventure," released by Sony's Columbia Pictures, is rated PG for fantasy action and peril, and some language. Running time: 101 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.