Journey to the Center of the Earth is aggressively bland, a display of X-treme mildness, a cinematic saltine.
Like many children’s movies, this remake of the Jules Verne adventure novel, starring Brendan Fraser as a scientist following the trail of his lost brother from an Icelandic cave into the bowels of the world, would be more accurately described as a grandparents’ movie. Little kids brought up on Shrek and The Incredibles have nothing in their memory banks to compare to this movie’s air of resolute fustiness, although Disney used to churn out earnest live-action epics like this one as late as the late 1970s.
The movie’s principal and only hook is its 3-D effects, which are still eye-catching enough to make the film of some interest. Three-D is enjoying a renaissance because the technology has improved so much and because theater owners are getting worried about their business evaporating once every American has a TV the size of a pool table (and everyone in other countries gets used to simply buying pirated movies on the street). Last fall’s 3-D Beowulfwas a rousing if campy spectacle, and more 3-D films are coming.
Journey, though, isn’t imaginative with the effects. A yo-yo jumps out of the screen, and the antennae of a bug. On three occasions, characters spit on us, the kind of tepid comedy that goes with the low-level thrills here.
The linebackerish Fraser isn’t the obvious choice to play Trevor, a bookish fellow who gets intrigued by a paperback copy of the novel A Journey to the Center of the Earth left behind by his missing brother more than a decade ago.
The paperback is full of notations that lead Trevor to Iceland to search for another scientist who was apparently working with his brother. Tagging along with Trevor is his brother’s son (Josh Hutcherson, recently seen in the equally wholesome but vastly superior kid flick Bridge to Terabithia), who plays a surly, bored youth addicted to his PSP.
In Iceland, the two find the scientist they’re looking for is dead. The man’s skeptical daughter Hannah (Anita Briem) pronounces her old man and Trevor’s brother “Vernists” who took everything Jules Verne wrote for sci-non-fi. To them, Verne’s books were simply guides to the possible. Hannah offers to show Trevor and his nephew the site that supposedly led to the earth’s core, for a price.
When everyone finally gets down to the spelunking, barely a few seconds have passed before a rock slide blocks them from the outside world, but no one seems much worried about this. Instead they keep poking deeper and deeper. When they, for instance, come across an abandoned underground railway system used for mining, they jump on the nearest handcart and go as fast as they can without wondering whether this is actually a good idea when there are blind turns and rollercoaster curves. (Still, the rail scene at least offers a taste of the amusement park; it’s the most exciting part.) This is the kind of movie where people working in 105 degree heat look less sweaty than if they had just done 25 crunches in an air-conditioned gym, and when the group plummets thousands of feet to a certain death, they crack little jokes as they fall.
Fraser, who had an energetic presence in the Mummy movies and even did well as a bumbler in the comedy remake of Bedazzled, barely registers, and Hutcherson’s transformation from sulkiness to gee-whizzery doesn’t much challenge him either. Briem is brisk and watchable as the all-knowing Hannah, but the film forgets to throw in much attraction between her and Trevor.
Instead, thing move forward as if in a simple video game. The characters work through one situation — say, a stormy sea beset by flying toothy fish — as easily as if they’re walking across the room (“batter up!” says Trevor, and he and Sean bash the little critters with sticks), and then go on to the next stage (say, hopping over a series of stepping stones floating in space above an abyss). The movie’s goal is to be compared to wholesome 1950s kiddie actioners, the kind that little Chip and Maryjane forget by the time they make it home to play kick the can. Mission accomplished.
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Directed by Eric Brevig
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem 1 1/2 stars/ 4
92 minutes/Rated PG