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<i>Zathura</i> Designed to Wow Young Moviegoers

"Jumanji" was a hit film 10 years ago, and now a new, oddly-named family adventure based on a popular children's book by the same author, arrives at North American theaters.

When two brothers open the door of their house and look out on the glittering, rocky rings of Saturn, they know it is not going to be an ordinary day. It begins when Danny, 8, finds a dusty box under the basement stairs. Inside is an antique board game with a wind-up key and a button. Pressing the button makes gears whir and tiny playing pieces shaped like space-ships advance. Then, out pops a piece of paper reading "Meteor shower - take evasive action."

Suddenly, searing hot meteors crash through the roof and walls, perforate the furniture and send the boys dashing for cover. When the shower clears, older brother Walter finally reads the instructions printed on the game box.

"Zathura. Attention space adventurers: Zathura awaits," he reads. "Do you have what it takes to navigate the galaxy? It's not for the faint of heart, for once you embark upon your journey, there is no turning back until Zathura is reached." That's it, he tells his brother. "We've got to keep playing."

This will sound familiar to fans of the 1995 hit film Jumanji, in which youngsters are trapped in a game that takes them on an adventure through jungles teeming with wild beasts. Zathura is also adapted from a Chris Van Allsberg book. This time, the inescapable escapade is in outer space; but director Jon Favreau explains it's the 1950's sci-fi version of galaxies far, far away.

“We very much wanted everything that comes out of this '50s-style tin toy to reflect the nostalgic aspect of science fiction,” he said. “That was one of the 'ins' for me as a director, because I saw that I could really do something that, maybe, would have been a little tongue-in-cheek had it not been for the vehicle of this game to bring these effects to the screen. So everything from the 'Buck Rogers'-style spaceships to the lizard men to the robot that looks like it could have been in Forbidden Planet. You can't really make a movie in earnest and use these images unless you have an excuse and the excuse was it is a fantasy driven by a kids game.”

"Your robot is defective."
"What does that mean?"
"It means my robot is broken."
"You don't even have a robot."

In the fantasy world of Zathura, a clanking robot does appear and clearly it is defective.

"Emergency! Alien life form. Must destroy."
"Walter, I think he's talking about you."

The kids are in peril at times in the story and that could frighten very young kids in the audience, but director Favreau believes they know it is all fantasy fun.

“We looked at the movies that I grew up watching, and I remember thinking, 'they weren't afraid to let things get a little intense and scary,'" he recalled. "Nobody gets killed. There is nothing in here that I'm uncomfortable showing to my four-year-old, but there are times when you think things could happen and the peril is real. You don't want to blow the reality of the film, [or] people at the end of watching it just feel like they've watched a big, old video game. They don't really feel like they've been engaged in some storytelling. So if it got scary at times, we let it get scary, but just enough to build the tension to keep people engaged who are adults and children,” he explained.

Kristen Stewart plays the teenage sister of the two boys. She says that realism was heightened by having less computer-generated effects than most sci-fi films today.

“In the house everything was practical,” she said. “When we harpooned walls and ripped out the ceilings, there was a real harpoon coming in and ripping out walls. When we had fires on set, there were really fires. The cool thing is also the Zorgons were real. They were guys in suits; but it's a lot easier to run from something that's actually chasing you than from something that is imaginary.”

Dax Shepard plays an astronaut who the game has the boys rescue. Shepard found his sarcastic wit a good fit with the tone of the film and says it defies the old show business warning against working opposite young kids:

“I had heard that going in, like everyone else, and I don't know if the root of that is 'you can't compete with them because they're cute and scene-stealing,'” he said. “That probably is true, but the kids in this movie were super-intelligent, focused, really good actors. So for me it was, perhaps, easier than working with anyone else because we had the same 12-year-old mentality and we horsed around all day and no one cared.”

"What do they eat?"
"That's good."
"Dude, you're meat."

Zathura stars Jonathan Bobo and Josh Hutcherson as brothers Danny and Walter. Oscar-winner Tim Robbins plays their too-easily distracted father who has no idea what's going as the kids play the game while he's away from the house.