It’s a toss-up for me as to whether the most impressive 3-D effect in this new take on Journey to the Center of the Earth is Brendan Fraser spitting out toothpaste or a dinosaur dripping mucus. I’m leaning toward the former, but then I’m a sucker for drain-point-of-view shots. This sort of thing makes me think it’s a missed opportunity for an ad campaign. The last time 3-D was set to be the “salvation” of the motion picture industry was 1952, and the first such feature was Bwana Devil, which was touted with, “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” Seems to me that “Toothpaste in your eye! Phlegm in your face!” would have been so much more colorful than the tagline Journey‘s makers settled on: “Same planet. Different world.”
The truth of the matter is that this latest assault on Jules Verne’s 1864 novel is a pleasantly cast mediocrity that scores slightly higher marks in its 3-D incarnation. There’s also a 2-D version, though that wasn’t originally the idea. In fact, the film’s original title was Journey to the Center of the Earth 3-D, but it was hastily altered when it turned out that movie theaters with 3-D capability still hover at the 800 mark, meaning that about 2,000 of the theaters playing the film would be showing it in a flat version. So much for the salvation of the movies. The 3-D effect—or gimmick, if you’re less charitable—is, however, the salvation of this film. At least, almost.
The last big-screen incarnation of Verne’s tale was Henry Levin’s big-budget wide-screen 1959 extravaganza starring the bland singing Pat Boone (two of his songs were cut before the film was released), the hammy James Mason, Arlene Dahl as the decorative love interest and a duck named Gertrude. It’s actually one of my earliest moviegoing memories, and I’m still not quite over my youthful horror concerning the villains of the piece eating Gertrude part way through the proceedings. This time, Boone has been replaced by the more charismatic Brendan Fraser, and Arlene Dahl has transformed into the equally decorative TV actress Anita Briem. Neither James Mason’s character nor Gertrude show up at all. The villains are absent, too, but we’re given the generally likable Josh Hutcherson (Zathura) as Fraser’s nephew, who is clearly meant to enhance the PG-rated movie’s kid appeal.
This is a streamlined affair with essentially only three characters: scientist Trevor Anderson (Fraser), nephew Sean (Hutcherson) and Icelandic guide Hannah (Briem). The premise has Anderson discovering that his long-missing brother, Max (Jean Michel Pare, 300), was a “Vernean,” which is to say one of a group of people who believe that Jules Verne’s speculative adventure fiction wasn’t fiction at all (the screenplay insists such folks exist). This knowledge sends Anderson and Sean on a search for, yes, the center of the earth—and possibly the missing Max—with the help of Hannah. Obviously, they find it; otherwise there would be no movie. The subterranean world and the effects are the main points of interest.
Your response to what they find down below will have much to do with your penchant for CGI wonders, 3-D (assuming you see it in that form) and clunky dialogue. If a wild ride on old mining cars (possibly left by the Seven Dwarfs), characters being menaced by a computer-created Tyrannosaurus Rex and prehistoric antisocial leaping fish appeal to you, so will the film. The 3-D is sometimes quite stunning. Though a few of the effects—including some luminous birds the film overuses—are a bit lame and a few more are too dark to be coherent (we are in a cave after all), but they’re nearly all fun. At bottom, that’s all this Journey is about. If you want something with a little—or any—substance, look elsewhere. Rated PG for intense adventure action and some scary moments.