**spoiler warning!! Specific sequences in the movie are described in this review**
Vernians may be outraged by the liberties taken in the latest adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1864 novel Journey to the Center of the Earth.Closer to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” than say, “Jurassic Park”, it offers a Cliff’s Notes summary of the deep science fiction of the source novel. But it nevertheless succeeds as a lightning-quick, economically-plotted theme park ride of a movie, that will keep kids and parents alike engaged.
Oh, almost forgot. It’s presented in digital 3D
The first live-action film shot and screened in digital 3D (or Real D 3D), this new Journey incorporates that nifty technological twist like a supporting character, in sometimes spectacular fashion.
Brendan Fraser, in the first act of his 'Return to Relevancy' Summer Tour (The Mummy 3 is due Aug. 1), plays sad-sack scientist Trevor Anderson, a loner who lives in a mess of a house that would embarrass Carl Spackler.
His radical theories on geology and plate tectonics have made him a joke among his colleagues, and the university is planning to shut down his lab.
Then he stumbles upon his brother Max’s handwritten notes inside a copy of Jules Verne’s novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which offer clues to his brother’s disappearance a decade earlier in Iceland.
Trevor and his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) take off for Iceland (the kid conveniently has his passport because he was flying to Canada after visiting his uncle). They meet up with mountain guide Hannah (Anita Briem), the daughter of a scientist who, like Max, was a ‘Vernian,’ someone who believes Jules Verne’s stories were grounded in fact rather than fiction.
Though not a believer, Hannah leads them to the top of Mount Schaeffels. The trio bicker and banter – Trevor and Sean at one point argue over who has Dibs on their attractive guide -- until a lightning storm traps them in a cave, and sends them falling into… the Center of the Earth.
First-time director Eric Brevig – a special effects vet on such films as “The Abyss,” “Men in Black” and “Total Recall” – keeps the action fast but frivolous. During The Big Drop, where they plunge into the lost world within a world, they fall so deep and so long, they actually crack jokes. Thankfully, that’s as close to camp as the film gets.
The special effects team did double the work to achieve the 3D effect, meaning 726 visual effects shots turned into more than 1,400. There is some truly inventive work here, including killer plants that make for an amusing fight scene.
The 3D shines during the movie’s many thrilling action pieces - including a mine shaft sequence that’s like the ‘Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom’ mine chase scene on steroids. You feel as if you’re sitting next to Fraser in his mine car.
Another time, our three intrepid explorers build a raft to cross a sea littered with huge sea serpents and deadly, leaping fish that jump out of the water at RIGHT AT YOU. That scene, as well as the chilling moment when a T-Rex shows up looking for a human snack, had every kid (and many adults) at the screening I attended squeezing the spilled popcorn butter out of the theater armrests.
The digital 3D was less impressive during the quieter scenes at the beginning. Much of what’s in the frame, especially during the early part of the movie, was distractingly out of focus.
The plot basically becomes a survival story once they land in the planet’s middle section. After briefly marveling in the realization that Verne’s supposedly-fictional ‘Lost World’ is real, our heroes have to find a way out. It’s too hot at the center of the planet for humans to survive for very long.
Fraser, who also executive produced the film, plays Trevor like a prozac-ed version of his “Mummy” alter-ego Rick O’Connell, complete with slouched shoulders and hound-dog expressions. Yes, it’s a stretch to see the bookworm turn suddenly into a resourceful hero as the trouble starts. But Fraser’s wide-eyed expressions tell us he’s not taking this too seriously, so why should we? Few actors today are as adept at handling roles in kid-centric films than Fraser. If he would have been born two decades earlier, he would have been top-lined Disney’s live-action pictures of the 60s and 70s.
There’s good interplay between Fraser and Hutcherson, who thankfully resists the temptation to play his role as the typical obnoxious teen. He gets a few moments to shine, including where he has to cross a floating bridge of magnetized boulders.
Briem was the weak link here. Her principal responsibility to the movie seems to be to give Trevor an adult to converse with.
The real star is the Real D 3D presentation. It puts the audience square in the middle of a story about lost worlds, dinosaurs, bottomless pits and rollercoaster mine cars.
A brisk 92-minute adventure, Journey to the Center of the Earth in 3D nevertheless provides an entertaining spin on Jules Verne’s original story. And outside of the aforementioned T-Rex scene, the action is tailor-made for the kids. If there is a sequel – and the groundwork is laid for more outings, I vote for remaking “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.”
Journey to the Center of the Earth opens nationwide July 11th.