The idea of ancillary marketing for “Journey to the Center of the Earth” feels redundant — this movie is already its own video game and its own theme park attraction. And if you’re 12, that’s awesome. Adults, however, may find the movie somewhat rougher going.
Rather than adapt the Jules Verne novel that gives the film its name, “Journey” follows a group of people using the novel as a guidebook.
Leading the expedition is geologist Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser), whose volcano-monitoring brother Maxwell disappeared years earlier. (It’s unclear whether the filmmakers intended to make a shout-out to the well-known playwright and screenwriter Maxwell Anderson or if they just didn’t know the name was taken.) Max’s son Sean (Josh Hutcherson) happens to be visiting Trevor when conditions at a volcano in Iceland perfectly match how things were when Max disappeared, so they’re off to Reykjavik to follow his path.
With the help of local mountain guide Hannah (Anita Briem) — whose late father, like Maxwell, saw Verne’s work more like fact than fiction — they travel to the volcano. Naturally, they’re soon plummeting down, down, down (there’s a hilarious bit where the falling trio screams, stops screaming, realizes they’re still falling, and then start screaming again) until they reach an underground kingdom. But how will they return?
Where “Journey” works best is in its shameless exploitation of 3-D, so if you must see it at all, watch it with the glasses on. From hissing insects shoving their antennae at the audience to characters spitting mouthfuls of water at the camera, the film revels in all the goofy fun of stereoscopy. (They even work a yo-yo into the plot, as well as a throwaway gag where Fraser tosses aside an antique stereoscope, having no idea what it is.)
With all the attention paid to things comin’ at ya, unfortunately, the cinematography and special effects are decidedly second-rate. “Journey” gets the small fakery right, as with a flock of luminescent birds that live underground, but things like subterranean landscapes and dinosaurs are so glaringly artificial that they pull you out of the story.
Not that the story itself is so riveting; only Hutcherson — as a grieving yet resourceful teenager — gets anything resembling a real character to play, or at least he’s the only cast member to carve a three-dimensional (as it were) human being out of Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin’s screenplay. Fraser’s blandly befuddled academic is a close cousin to the negligible role he’s been playing in all those “Mummy” movies, while Briem could just wear a sign that says “Spunky Girl” for all the depth the script gives her.
With temperatures and gas prices both going up, an afternoon spent enjoying jumbo sodas and the 3-D effects of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” isn’t the worst way to kill a few hours. Just think of it more as an E-Ticket attraction and less as an actual movie.