Both movies are about magical boardgames that pull the players into a world of danger and adventure. I enjoyed both movies. However, which movie has the leg up? Read on for my point-by-point take. BEWARE - MAJOR MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD, so you've been warned.
The Setting - and its Dangers
Jumanji: The jungle, which means stampedes, monsoons, poisonous flowers and hungry foliage.
Zathura: Outerspace - with blackholes, gravity fields, meteors, and cryogenic chambers.
Advantage: Jumanji, at least in the case of realism. The Zathura boys have it easy - that film decidedly leaves science by the wayside, as the kids are still permitted electricity, heat, and water, and the whole concept of the airless vacuum of space is pointedly ignored. However, sometimes the dangers of Jumanji become too extreme for the movie to be truly enjoyed, whereas the safe incontinuity of Zathura allows time for more wonder at the glorious surroundings.
The Special Effects
Jumanji: Mainly CGI, used for stampeding animals, grasping vines, splitting houses, lions, and monkeys.
Zathura: Some CGI (for backgrounds and spaceships), more physical explosions, puppetry, and costuming (for some of the robot, the Zorgons, the damage to the house).
Advantage: Zathura. Jumanji relied too much on CGI when CGI was still a newer technology, and as such, lots of the effects are very weird-looking and awkward (particularly the monkeys and the lion). By keeping most of the effects old-school, Zathura's look remained consistent, magical, and realistic.
The Strong-Willed Older Sibling
Jumanji: Judy Shepherd (Kirsten Dunst)
Zathura: Walter Budwing (Josh Hutcherson)
Advantage: Walter. For one thing, he's a main character who directly manipulates the course of events, emerging from the experience as a different person. In Jumanji, Alan Parrish (Robin Williams) is the centre of attention, so Judy and her brother Peter are really only along for the ride, and end up forgetting the experience anyway (more on that to be revealed).
The Weak-Willed, Cheating Younger Sibling
Jumanji: Peter Shepherd (Bradley Pierce)
Zathura: Danny Budwing (Jonah Bobo)
Advantage: Tie - Peter's more mature, and Danny has more of a stake in the game, but they're both surprisingly similar, not only because both summon disastrous consequences when they attempt to cheat at their respective games (Peter turns into a monkey as punishment, and Danny's brother Walter gets blamed for Danny's misstep and ends up ejected into space). On an interesting note - both characters end up being the ones who release the Trapped-In-The-Game Adults.
The Trapped-In-The-Game Adult
Jumanji: Alan Parrish (Robin Williams) - trapped in the jungle at age nine for 26 years after he lands on a spot that sucks him into the game until someone rolls a five or an eight. Released when Peter rolls a five.
Zathura: The Astronaut (Dax Shepard) - trapped in space at age ten for fifteen years, when he recklessly wishes his brother out of existence. Without his brother to complete his turn, the Astronaut was unable to continue the game to its conclusion. Summoned when Danny spins the "Rescue Stranded Astronaut" card.
Advantage: The Astronaut - for one thing, he's sexier. For another, he's more entertaining as the unwilling referee between the two squabbling brothers than Alan, who emerges from the game as a loin-cloth wearing, bearded adult to discover his family is dead and his house abandoned. I bought Shepard's wiseass approach more than William's child-trapped-in-a-man's-body portrayal.
The Unwittingly-Dragged-Into-The-Game Authority Figure
Jumanji: Sarah Whittle - started the game as a girl with Alan Parrish, fled when Alan was sucked into the game, and spent the next 26 years convincing herself the entire incident was a psychotic breakdown until Alan and co. remind her that her turn is needed to continue the game to its conclusion.
Zathura: Lisa Budwing - the boys' older sister who is recruited to babysit them, at least until she winds up cryogenically frozen. Not an actual player.
Advantage: Sarah. For one thing, she doesn't spend three-quarters of the movie as an amusing inanimate prop, only to wake up screaming and out of touch, and for another, she lends a needed adult perspective to the adventure that Alan's wounded-man-boy cannot provide.
The Concluding Time-Warp
Jumanji: Upon completing the game, Alan and and Sarah find themselves nine-years-old again in 1969, when they first started the game. Judy and Peter don't exist yet, and don't remember them when they meet again in the future.
Zathura: At the end of the movie, the Astronaut is revealed to be an adult version of Walter, who came back in time through a black hole in order to prevent his younger self from being trapped in the game by wishing Danny had never been born.
Advantage: Jumanji. Simple, fast, and easy, the time-warp ending concludes in a manner where everyone wins. Alan makes up with his dad, Sarah's not labeled as psychotic, and the two manage to keep Judy and Peter from being orphaned! Sure, Zathura's twist was cool - but it takes a good long while for the ending to make sense, more time than the movie can afford.
The Family Theme
Jumanji: Father-and-Son Relationships - Alan feuds with his father when his dad suggests sending him to boarding school, but regrets his callousness after he is released to find out his father died before he could apologize. Finds himself becoming a father-figure to Judy and Peter.
Zathura: Brother Relationships - Walter and Danny find themselves competing for their divorced dad's attention, with Walter being increasingly hostile towards Danny's presence. Throughout the game, they must tighten their bond in order to survive.
Advantage: Tie. Alan's relationship with his father is more psychological, and is visually demonstrated by the character of Hunter Van Pelt, a sadistic gun-toting maniac who hunts Alan throughout the film, and presumably while Alan was living in the jungle, as well. The Hunter and Alan's father are played by the same actor (Jonathan Hyde), and spout the same diatribes about "acting like a man", which brings into question whether the world of Jumanji is created by the game, or its players.
The relationship between Walter and Danny is demonstrated by the contrasting metaphor of the Astronaut, who provides the image of a grim future of a Walter without a Danny to help him finish the game. The Astronaut is a living testament to brotherly hatred taken too far, and is only redeemed when young Walter wishes back the alternate-timeline Danny that the Astronaut carelessly wished away. Alternate- and Present-Danny merge into one, as do Older and Younger Walter, and the timeline is restored.
Winner: A tie. Jumanji may seem a little dated now, especially in the special effects department, but the story is sound, although the violence of scenes seems to aim the movie at an older audience. Zathura is still bright and new and shiny-looking, but is appealing to all ages and could very well become a children's classic.