Hello, friends in time, and welcome to a regular feature on Cinema 52 where I put my weekly viewing of Back to the Future on hold and watch another movie featuring time travel for– wait, seriously, these are time travel movies? Are you kidding? Alright. Fine. Let’s go.
JUMANJI (1995) and ZATHURA: A SPACE ADVENTURE (2005)
Okay, so we need to do things a little out of order this week, and we’ll start with recommendations. Zathura is better than Jumanji, and even though it was made second, I think you should see it first so the rules of how these magical board games function are fresher to you (a repetition that may have hurt Zathura‘s box office despite it being a superior film). So, if you want to watch a magical board game movie, there you go; scamper off and get away from the spoilers about why the fuck there’s time travel in ‘em. Specifically, why the fuck it’s a major narrative arc in both films, and why they tell two completely different types of time travel stories when they are, again, children’s adventure films about magical board games. Agh.
Alright, let’s skip all the bullshit in Jumanji (that joke writes itself) and extract the time travel. Here’s a refresher…
1) In 1969, Alan Parrish (Adam Hann-Byrd) and Sarah Whittle (Laura Bell Bundy) sit down to play Jumanji, the fun-time jungle adventure board game that wants to murder you.
Ages dead and up.
2) On Alan’s turn, he receives the following message on the Swirl-o-Scope in the center of the board: “In the jungle you must wait, until the dice read five or eight.” His body gets Mister Fantasticked into the Swirl-o-scope and Sarah runs away, leaving the game unfinished.
“My burgeoning career as a hand model!”
3) In 1995, Judy (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter Shepherd (Bradley Pierce) find Jumanji and continue the gameplay. A roll of five releases Alan from the jungle. Unfortunately, he now looks like a homeless Robin Williams.
Come on, he should be hairier than that.
4) After tracking down Adult Sarah (Bonnie Hunt), the four continue playing, as the rules state that the “consequences” will vanish once the game is finished.
The kids check to make sure “two improv comics incessantly riffing” qualify as “consequences.”
5) Embarrassingly dated CGI ensues.
“Shoulda used more puppets.” – A memo from Jurassic Park.
6) At the end, the game is won, Alan and Sarah hold each other tight as all the fake animals get sucked into the board, and then…
Yup. Everything went back to the way it was before the game started, just like the rules said. So it’s 1969 again, and Alan and Sarah chuck Jumanji into a river this time instead of unleashing a digital zoo upon the world.
I’m not going to pretend that playing the game across twenty-six years isn’t an awesome idea. The only problem is that whichever screenwriter came up with it decided it was so awesome that it had to overshadow the rest of the movie, which, I can’t believe I have to stress this again, is a children’s adventure film about a magical board game. That premise should be enough, right? Shouldn’t we just focus on the two kids? (Zathura, thankfully, figured that part out.) I could also dive into the weirdly muddled messages about growing up and the bizarre layer of daddy issues implied by casting Jonathan Hyde as both Alan’s father and the villain, but please, Jumanji, I only have time to sort out one of your baffling decisions today.
Right, time travel… where was I?
So Alan and Sarah have retained all their memories of playing Jumanji, which I feel ought to count as “consequences” of the game, but who am I to judge magic time travel? Oh, wait, I’m Cinemanaut Bill, and I judge all time travel… bitch. Sorry, that felt empowering. Okay, movie, I’m gonna call this in-body… alternate timeline… magic wiggle room travel. Alan and Sarah are in a parallel universe, with its point of divergence from the original being the start of the game. No matter what they do with their lives, it won’t affect their memories of the lives they’ve already experienced. Young Alan will always know how to gut a rhinoceros and make it into a raincoat, while Young Sarah… fuck, she kind of got shafted here, she just gets the same old boring life. Maybe she remembers some lottery numbers or something.
In the scene above, Alan and Sarah meet Judy and Peter again, but the kids don’t have any memory of Jumanji, because magic is stupid. Man, if they could remember, though… now that would be a movie. Can you imagine? From birth, Judy is as smart as a thirteen-year-old and has visions of her currently nonexistent brother turning into a monkey? (Oh, yeah, that happens.) The psychological damage would be intense. Hopefully they’ll save that for the inevitable reboot, but let me get back on track here. Alan and Sarah also meet the kids’ parents, and when they hear that they’re planning on taking a ski trip to the Canadian Rockies, they loudly protest, because that’s how they died in the original timeline. So there’s your plot in a nutshell… the two kids who should be the protagonists of the story now live in a world where loved ones they didn’t even know were going to die were saved thanks to a game they didn’t even know existed.
What’s your deal, game?
Hey, wait a minute, dummies, why’d you throw Jumanji away? Can’t you start a new round, take just one turn, and have a permanent save point whenever your life turns shitty? Don’t tell me Alan can’t fight off whatever pops out on the first roll; the dude spent twenty-six freaking years fending off every single CGI monstrosity that the jungle could throw at him. Sure, the game was forged by dark magicks and might try to punish you for rigging your own personal Groundhog Day, but what’s the worst it can do? Turn you into a monkey? That shit resets at the end anyway. And if you tell me no, the game just plain won’t let you because magic is in your heart, fuck you, magic is stupid. The game tries to kill children, so get out of here with your “pure sense of wonder” crap and let’s do some science. I say fire off those dice, cut one snake’s head off, then rob all the banks you want.
Wow. Am I evil? No time for moral quandaries, let’s go to fuckin’ space!
Same as before, let’s recap the chrono-fuckery in Zathura, and remember, this is totally different from Jumanji, ie. you might want to watch it before I spoiler all over your face.
1) Brothers Walter (Josh Hutcherson) and Danny (Jonah Bobo) start to play a sci-fi-themed board game called Zathura.
I was told to make a joke about one of them being hungry? During the game? Something like that.
2) Delightfully stylized and practical effects ensue.
So far, completely different from Jumanji.
3) At one point, they draw a card that informs them of a stranded astronaut. It’s Dax Shepard.
He gave up some quality ‘batin for this.
4) The suspiciously nameless astronaut seems to be fully aware that Zathura is a game, and even has one of the cards… the same one that Walter has.
Hey, I am putting things together here…
5) The game includes incoming shooting stars that players can make wishes upon. The astronaut gets awfully antsy when this happens and begs Walter not to make wishes while he’s angry at his brother Danny, claiming he knows what he’s thinking.
I’m sure he’s just super intuitive and hates sibling rivalry.
6) The astronaut later reveals that he’s permanently stuck in the game because he used a shooting star to wish his brother out of existence. When Walter gets another shooting star card, he wishes for the astronaut’s brother to come back, and… wait for it…
HOW IS THIS OH MY GOD NO WAY IT’S DANNY
Yeah, the astronaut is Walter, all grown up. Pretty cool, right? It’s a neat time travel reveal and it comes bundled with great lessons on emotional maturity… instead of weird daddy issues like in Jumanji. Don’t worry, Freudians, there’s still some classic McFly incest from Walter’s sister (Kristen Stewart), who gets all gooshy for the dreamy Dax Shepard, but it’s played for comedy instead of a false attempt at psychological depth in a kiddie popcorn movie.
He’s not scared of zebras. He’s remembering father’s belt.
The clues leading up to Zathura‘s time travel reveal might strike adults as a bit obvious, but if I saw this as a kid, I’d want a friggin’ medal for piecing it all together. Even the more subtle hints are pretty satisfying on a second viewing. For starters, the astronaut shows up when the game path first intersects with itself. When Danny keeps taking the astronaut’s advice, Walter blurts out, “Whose brother are you? His or mine?” The astronaut claims he passed through a time sphincter– okay, no, that’s not even remotely subtle. But still, not a bad time travel story at all.
Oh, wait, until it ends. But I blame wish magic. When the shooting star brings Danny back, there’s a slight problem… two Dannies.
You really shit the bed on this one, star.
Well, you know how wish-granting goes. Semantics and whatnot. I guess Old Walter will have to bring Young Danny back with him and sort everyth–
Or absorb into his alternate self like a twinkly but nevertheless fucked up Timecop meat cloud?! Well, at least–
OH FUCKING CHRIST!
WHAT THE HELL?
Alright, I need a minute. The astronaut morphs into Jox Hutchpard and ghosts his way into Little Walter? That is… creepy. And doesn’t make any sense. See, this should have gone one of two ways.
1) Old Walter prevents Young Walter from wishing Danny away, and the game operates in a mutable timeline. Old Walter would simply vanish, under delayed ripple effect Back to the Future rules (which also don’t make a whole lot of sense, but suck it up, it’s time travel, stay with me). There would be no need to wish for Danny back, because he never would have disappeared in the first place, which also would prevent Old Walter from ever getting stuck in the game, thus negating his ability to travel back in time. So, poof.
2) Old Walter prevents Young Walter from wishing Danny away, and the game operates in alternate timelines. Young Walter has learned his lesson and finishes out the game with Danny. Old Walter and Weird New Second Young Danny are not affected by these events and are just kinda hangin’ out; honestly, I don’t know what Zathura’s ruling would be on any of this. Do they need to finish their game too? Can they go back to their own timeline? Are they stuck in the game forever?
3) Don’t worry, Bill, it’s all just maaaaaaaagiiiiiiiiiiiic… FUCK YOU, then this sci-fi game sucks at identifying genre conventions.
Breathing in space? I doubt this is hard sci-fi.
Okay, I guess if you want to count it as in-game magic that’s vanishing as they wrap up, fine, whatever. I suppose one could argue that there isn’t technically any “real” time travel in this movie… wait, what happens when a game of Zathura ends? Does everything reset like in Jumanji? Isn’t that still time travel?
I’m glad you asked, and when I say that, I mean I have a horrible obsession with time travel and spent several minutes studying frame after frame of Zathura: A Space Adventure trying to come to a definitive conclusion. I need help.
Anyway, the movie goes through the trouble of making the boys’ dad (Tim Robbins) run to the office to work on a project, which initially made me think that the game happened in real time and all the destruction merely repaired itself at the end.
Or it’s all in their heads, but that’s a whole ‘nother unreadably long article.
However, one shot in the movie goes out of its way to linger on a baseball game on the living room TV, just before Danny opens the box containing Zathura. You’ll note that it’s the top of the ninth inning.
Sorry for all the technical sports jargon.
When Zathura ends, you can faintly hear the ballgame announcer in the background… declaring that it’s now only the bottom of the ninth. Looks like someone’s… outatime.
By the way, lest you think the screenwriters of both films just pulled “time travel” out of their ass-hats as a way to pad the runtime on what should already be a pretty engaging premise, there’s actually precedent in the books these films are based on. While Jumanji is devoid of any major temporal tomfoolery, Zathura supposedly involves a time warp back to the end of the first book, which– holy hell, my brain needs a nap.
Want more time travel? Head on over to the Time Out archive.