The success or failure of Journey to the Center of the Earth, New Line Cinema's $45 million, 3-D remake of Jules Verne's seminal adventure novel, boils down to one simple question: How do the rocks look? Seriously. Every single film focusing on caves, caverns and mysterious lands beneath the Earth's crust lives or dies on the realism of its rock-strewn sets. If they look like something off the first season of “Star Trek,” then the film is sunk before it begins. All the cutting-edge digital 3-D animation isn't going to make up for crappy papier-mâché rocks. So, how do the rocks in Journey to the Center of the Earth look? Eh, not bad. Considerably better than “Land of the Lost,” not as good as a visit to Carlsbad Caverns.
High-tech 3-D spit-shine aside, this 21st-century Journey follows extremely closely the path laid out by the hokey 1959 version starring Pat Boone and James Mason. Brendan Fraser (The Mummy) takes over for Boone (and Mason and Arlene Dahl and pretty much everybody else in the much larger original cast). He plays Professor Trevor Anderson, a university geologist whose pet project in vulcanism is about to be shut down by budget-conscious administrators. To make matters worse, Trevor's surly 13-year-old nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson, Bridge to Terabithia), is coming to stay with him for 10 days. What's he going to do with the kid? As it happens, some mysterious volcanic activity catches Trevor's attention. Seems this activity corresponds exactly to certain theories put forth by Trevor's late brother (and Sean's father). Could this mean that the mysteriously-
Teaming up with a jailbait mountain guide named Hannah Asgeirsson (actual Icelandic actress Anita Briem, who played Jane Seymour in Showtime's “The Tudors”), the Anderson boys do their best Alice in Wonderland impression, falling down a great big hole in the ground and ending up in The Land That Time Forgot (or was that another movie?). What follows is a CGI-heavy recreation of a fairly entertaining amusement park ride. There's a runaway mine cart, a massive waterslide, a prehistoric fish attack, a death-defying hide-and-seek game with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The only thing missing are bumper cars and a kiosk at which souvenir T-shirts can be purchased.
With its bargain-basement (by Hollywood terms) $45 million budget, Journey to the Center of the Earth is forced to cut a few corners. The cast, as stated previously, is miniscule. Don't go expecting Jurassic Park-sized herds of dinosaurs, either. One lonely T-Rex is all this baby can scrape together. Still, it's in 3-D—and for the next couple of years at least, that's novelty enough to guarantee a decent box office. Effective as the new RealD system is, it proves less natural in a live-action film than it did bringing computer animation to life. (If you saw Beowulf, you'll understand.) The 3-D effects on display here are as unsubtle and eye-poking as they were in the days of 1952's Bwana Devil (“A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” screamed that pioneering pic's posters.) Still, kids in the audience will thrill to various things sticking out of the screen.
Juvenile and gimmicky as all get-out, Journey to the Center of the Earth still manages to do what it sets out to in an entertaining, Saturday matinee manner. Adults will quickly realize at what age range this PG adventure pic is aimed and can adjust their expectations accordingly. ... If not, they can always whittle away 92 minutes checking out the nifty 3-D rocks.
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