Before becoming the King of Star Wars and Marvel, Jon Favreau directed a family sci-fi comedy reminiscent of ‘Jumanji.’
It would have been pretty odd in the mid-1990s to suggest that the goofy guy from Swingers would end up becoming one of the most powerful creative giants shaping the future of Hollywood, but Jon Favreau has exceeded any expectations that anyone has had. Following the success of the spec script for Swingers that also granted him his first starring role, Favreau became a successful comedy director before transitioning into major blockbuster franchises.
There’s no company in the industry that is quite as dominant as Walt Disney, and Favreau essentially kickstarted a new era for Disney’s most valuable properties; he created the first installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, cracked the formula on turning the live-action remakes into box office juggernauts, and set up a sustainable future for the Star Wars franchise on Disney+. However, in the midst of his rise to prominence, Favreau took his first venture into science fiction with the family film Zathura: A Space Adventure.
Zathura: A Space Adventure was Jon Favreau’s first experience with significant visual effects work, but the film itself is essentially a modern-day retelling of Jumanji. The film centers on two young brothers Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo), who bicker and argue any chance they can get.
After playing with an older sci-fi board game, the brothers accidentally send their house flying into deep space, trapping their older sister Lisa (Kristen Stewart) along with them. What follows is a nostalgic, 1980s-inspired space opera filtered through the perspective of younger children; they’re introduced to many goofy characters including a wise-talking astronaut (Dax Shepard) and a powerful robot (Frank Oz). Zathura: A Space Adventure may not be a modern sci-fi classic, but it equipped Jon Favreau with the skills that would grant him his future success.
With ‘Zathura: A Space Comedy,’ Jon Favreau Moved Away From Strictly Comedy
A recurring issue within modern blockbuster filmmaking is that the opportunity to direct a high-value property is often granted to young, emerging filmmakers who have only worked on small-scale features. While it’s great to see a younger generation of artists and their unique perspective on a story, forcing them to work under the tight constraints of operating visual effects sequences, meeting studio demands, and setting up future franchise installments isn’t a good way to utilize their talent; what made Josh Trank or Colin Trevorrow perfect for Chronicle and Safety Not Guaranteed didn’t work so well in Fant4stic and Jurassic World, respectively. However, Jon Favreau’s transition from “comedy guy” to “blockbuster machine” was a gradual one; Zathura was a test of his abilities that bridged the gap between Elf to Iron Man.
Zathura had the unique hallmark of being a tribute to the Amblin days of 1980s science fiction, and thus the relationship between the two brothers had to be the most pivotal aspect of the film’s emotional crux. This is where Favreau’s experience writing and performing in comedies helped him out; the banter between Walter and Danny is genuinely funny, and it doesn’t feel like Favreau is trying to insert talk down to his more youthful audience.
The kids act like real kids, and that authenticity is what would make his work in the Star Wars and Marvel franchises so unique. Favreau was able to identify the human element of a space adventure story and crystalize it, which made it appealing to those who hadn’t necessarily been fans of the property in the first place.
Similar to Jumanji, the joy of Zathura comes from seeing the two brothers bond as they learn to play the game, and thus figure out how to get home. While the 1980s references might feel commonplace now, Zathura was released in a slightly earlier era where young children playing old board games wasn’t a completely foreign concept; the ‘80s inspiration doesn’t feel like an active marketing tool, but rather an aesthetic choice on Favreau’s part.
Since gaming is inherently collaborative, Danny and Walter learn to value each others’ merits like they hadn’t previously. It gives the film an earnest, heartfelt nature that was rare within live-action family films of its time; these films generally tended to revolve around established movie stars playing parents, but Favreau had the foresight to know that kids probably wanted to watch characters their own age in the main roles.
‘Zathura: A Space Adventure’ Features an Impressive Cast
Zathura: A Space Adventure is certainly geared toward a younger audience, but it features a fairly interesting collection of co-stars that were at interesting points in their own careers. While Stewart had proven herself as a child performer in Panic Room, Zathura came before her breakout role in The Twilight Saga that would turn her into a gigantic superstar. Ironically, her performance as an irritated older sister whose role ultimately becomes a maternal one bears more in common with the types of performances she would give once she began starring in more independent and international fare.
With all due respect to the younger stars, Stewart is the one young star that Favreau really identified as deserving of more opportunities; however, Stewart was still in a vulnerable enough spot within her career that she was still investing wholeheartedly into the material, even when it got fairly silly.
Similarly, Dax Shepard isn’t trying to cut back on his comedic sensibilities simply to appeal to a youthful demographic, as the enigmatic explorer the brothers run into couldn’t be more unpolished. He’s clearly modeled after sci-fi adventure heroes, but the character’s irresponsibility ends up dragging the villainous Zorgons closer to the family, putting them in even more danger.
This causes a significant conflict with Walter, who has begun to play a more protective role over his family; the true reason for Walter’s conflict with the astronaut is explained in a genuinely creative and well-handled plot twist that is fairly predictable, yet heartwarming. Hutcherson in particular gets to really shine here, in what would preview his role in several key projects in the future.
Favreau understood that at the end of the day, the spectacle was worth nothing if it didn’t have compelling characters; audiences didn’t go back to see his work over and over again only because of the visual spectacle (although it certainly didn’t hurt), but because characters like Grogu, Tony Stark, Baloo, and Simba appealed to them on an emotional level. Zathura is silly and corny, but it certainly has heart and originality; wouldn’t that feel like a breath of fresh air right now?