The appeal of writer-illustrator Chris Van Allsburg’s lavishly illustrated picture books lies in his childlike sense of the fantastic, in his surreal story logic and haunting, dreamlike images.
Van Allsburg is closer to the Grimm Brothers than to Disney; his world is chilly but awe-inspiring and full of wonder. He doesn’t craft clever plots or develop interesting characters. He asks you to contemplate a world in which jungle animals suddenly run amok in your house, or a train chugs up the street in front of your house en route to the North Pole.
One of Van Allsburg’s most intriguing books, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, offers no story at all, just a series of unrelated illustrations from implied but unwritten narratives, each accompanied by a single caption from a nonexistent story. “The fifth one ended up in France,” reads the caption to a non-story called “The Seventh Chair,” while the illustration depicts a pair of clerics in a cathedral-like edifice contemplating a nun in a chair suspended some twenty-five feet off the floor. Where the other six chairs wound up, where they come from, and why and how they behave as they do, Van Allsburg leaves as an exercise to the reader’s imagination.
A thirty-page children’s book in which inexplicable, awe-inspiring things just happen is one thing; a two-hour movie is something else. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but it requires a light touch and a poetic sensibility that eludes the typical Hollywood family film.
Hollywood’s first attempt at Van Allsburg, the 1995 film Jumanji, cluttered up its story of a jungle adventure board game come to life with too many characters and too much plot. Last year’s all-CGI The Polar Express did a better job at capturing the spirit of Van Allsburg, but couldn’t make Santa Claus or his North Pole home worth the trip. It also undermined the hero’s crisis of faith with the greater needs of a new character, Lonely Boy, whom the film never gave his due.
Van Allsburg’s outer-space adventure Zathura is a literal sequel to Jumanji, though I’m not clear why the “jungle adventure” board game now traffics in meteor showers and alien lizards. The film version, directed by Jon Favreau (Elf), adapts the book without making a sequel to either version of Jumanji, with “Zathura” rather than “Jumanji” as the name of the game.
Favreau’s Zathura avoids the mistakes that undermined the earlier Van Allsburg adaptations. Light on plot and story logic but strong on narrative thrust and fantastic imagery, it’s the most effective of the three films. It’s a family film that can move from the poetic grandeur of opening your front door and seeing the rings of Saturn to the mutual resentment of sibling rivalry, a film that knows that a dark basement or an old dumbwaiter can be as creepy as a giant space lizard or a murderous robot.
Alas, Zathura is also a family film of the contemporary family as well as for it. Dewy kid-brother Danny (Jonah Bobo) and surly older-brother Walter (Josh Hutcherson) now come from a broken home (their parents’ marriage is intact in the book), and have a disaffected teenaged sister named Lisa (Kristen Stewart).
Lisa spends most of the film first trying to sleep the afternoon away before “hooking up” with her boyfriend that evening, then cryogenically frozen in her cute pink boxers in the bathroom.
Dad (Tim Robbins) winces at the “hooking up” line. “I don’t like you saying that,” he says.
Lisa rolls her eyes. “It’s just an expression. It doesn’t mean anything.”
“I hope it doesn’t.”
“I hope it doesn’t.”
“It doesn’t! We never should have watched Thirteen together!”
Perhaps screenwriters David Koepp and John Kamps were going for the rough-around-the-edges family milieu of E.T. (Viewers may be reminded of Elliot’s infamous shouted obscenity in an early scene in which Danny angrily throws a related four-letter word at Walter.)
But E.T. was raw with grief over the breakup of the parents’ marriage. Dad was a scoundrel for having abandoned his family and gone to Mexico with his new girlfriend, and Mom was just barely holding it together.
Zathura, by contrast, is a family film for the no-fault divorce age. One week it’s three days with Dad, four days with Mom, the next week vice versa; the boys aren’t crazy about it, but it’s just the way things are. Regrettably, that’s reality for far too much of the film’s target audience; even the children of intact homes know children in Danny and Walter’s situation.
What ultimately pushes the film just beyond the pale for me is the utterly unsympathetic portrayal of Walter, and the one-note sourness of his treatment of Danny, for three-quarters of the running time. Like the book, Zathura is ostensibly about quarreling siblings learning to deal with their differences and get along, but Walter is so unsympathetic and lacking in affection for Danny that the inevitable rapprochement is too little, too late. (To a lesser extent, a similar mistake can be seen even in the original Spy Kids, though older sister Carla was more sympathetic than Walter, and the overwhelmingly positive marriage-and-family-unity milieu compensates for that film’s missteps.)
Zathura does have an intriguing idea for giving shape to the need for fraternal unity, involving the introduction of an enigmatic character called The Astronaut. The concept for this character was a good one. Unfortunately, the screenwriters couldn’t ultimately figure out how to connect him to the story or pay off his story-arc, and the problem is literally dissolved into fairy dust. This is one time where tighter plotting (in a Back to the Future mode) would have been a good idea.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Zathura is its transferral of the angst of the boys’ broken home to the literal destruction of the physical house, which is not only literally uprooted like Dorothy’s home in The Wizard of Oz, but incrementally demolished by one danger after another.
This house is not the family homestead (which the movie makes a point of establishing went to Mom), but the new home that Dad is trying to establish for his part-time family, a beautiful early 20th-century Craftsman-style house. Slowly, methodically, all that lovely wainscoting and cabinetry succumbs to meteors, solar flares, and especially Zorgon attacks.
Somehow, no matter how the damage escalates, the boys are sure that if they can only finish the game to the end, the house will be magically put back to rights. It would be nice to see this as a metaphor for the secret wish to have an intact family again.
Van Allsburg’s simple story of a nameless, doubting boy who rides a magical train to Santa’s home at the North Pole is fleshed out by introducing us to a few of his young fellow passengers, and also by making the train ride and the visit to the North Pole far more eventful. These additions are fairly consonant with the spirit of Van Allsburg’s work; almost any two minutes of The Polar Express could be a scene in a Van Allsburg story, even if they could never all be squeezed into a single book. Fans of the writer-artist may be pleased to find The Polar Express about as faithful an adaptation of the author’s work as could be imagined in a feature film.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.