Friday, July 11, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth: Rollicking trip

Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008) • View trailer for Journey to the Center of the Earth
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for fantasy peril
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.11.08
Buy DVD: Journey to the Center of the Earth • Buy Blu-Ray: Journey to the Center of the Earth [Blu-ray]

This is the best Walt Disney film that Uncle Walt never made.

Director Eric Brevig's Journey to the Center of the Earth is unapologetically retro: an old-style, family-friendly adventure highlighted by contemporary set design and creature technology. More than once, this film strongly echoes Disney's 1962 adaptation of In Search of the Castaways — another Jules Verne tale, it should be mentioned — most notably during a roaring sequence as our heroes tear down a hillside on a roundish "vehicle" of sorts.
The calm before all heck breaks loose: Our intrepid explorers — from left,
Trevor (Brendan Fraser), Sean (Josh Hutcherson) and Hannah (Anita Briem) —
make their way through a mysteriious cave, unaware that the ground is about to
give way and plunge them into an exciting adventure.

The script — by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin — is simple and superficial, but I don't mean that in a bad way; the film simply avoids angst and complicated interpersonal dynamics. We're quickly and economically introduced to our three main characters, who begin with mildly prickly relationships with each other — the better for mostly gentle one-liners — and then they pretty much carry the film on their own.

In a rather clever nod toward Verne's classic novel, which scientist Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) insists remains a "good read," our heroes use the book as a blueprint for their own incredible saga. They eventually treat the book's chapters less as a whopping tall tale, and more as an early "rough guide" to life beneath the surface.

What we 21st century citizens know of actual science must be ignored, of course ... but this film is so good- natured about its casual disregard for basic laws of physics and temperature dynamics, that we cheerfully go along for the ride.

I must bow to the continuing savvy of Walden Media, which has delivered yet another delightfully earnest adaptation of an established book, following in the recent footsteps of Holes, Hoot, Charlotte's Web, Bridge to Terabithia and both Chronicles of Narnia entries, among others. Every one of these films can be enjoyed by all ages, without pandering to children or annoying their adult companions.

My earlier nod to Uncle Walt is equally earnest; I'm certain he would have loved Walden Media's films, since the production company strives for the same elements typical of late 1950s and early '60s Disney live-action entries such as Old Yeller, Polyanna, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Incredible Journey and, as mentioned, Castaways.

Or let's put it this way: If some cranky relative of a certain age complains about how "movies aren't made like they used to be," bring said individual along when you catch this Journey to the Center of the Earth.

In quick order, we're introduced to Trevor, a university-based scientist about to lose his lab due to an absence of publishable data, and his young nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson, from Bridge to Terabithia). Both have holes in their souls, due to the long-ago loss of Max, Trevor's brother and Sean's father. Indeed, Trevor's subsequent career has been an effort to defend the theories of his brother, who went missing a decade ago while on field work.

Now, thanks to fresh seismic activity in a region long believed dormant, Trevor hares off to Iceland, rather irresponsibly allowing Sean to tag along. (Hey, it's that kind of story. Go with the flow.) They meet a gorgeous but impressively resourceful local guide, Hannah (Anita Briem, perhaps recognized as Jane Seymour in TV's The Tudors), who leads them to the site of Trevor's newly actived seismic whatzis.

Thanks to a lightning storm, they're trapped in a mountain after a badly timed rock slide. And while passageways abound, they all lead down, rather than out; after a few more hell-for-leather experiences — notably a runaway mine car ride right out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom — they descend even farther and wind up in what Trevor likens to a gigantic underground terrarium.

This land comes complete with its own massive flora and fauna, much of it captured precisely by the illustrations in Verne's 100-year-old book (a copy of which our heroes conveniently brought along). Some of these creatures are perilous, while others are helpful in their own way, most notably a brilliantly blue-white little "glow bird" that shines like a robin-sized firefly, and becomes something of a "chaperone."

The problem, as Trevor quickly realizes, is that the temperature of this massive enclosed region is rising rapidly and soon will become deadly; their only salvation, following Verne's book's example, is to head for a distant waterspout "funnel" that will (hopefully) blow them back to the surface world.

Our heroes' subsequent adventures and hair's-breadth escapes are more exciting than scary, frequently serving to give Trevor and Hannah chances to one-up each other. Their banter is amiable and reasonably unforced, and of course they're destined to fall in love (despite 13-year-old Sean earlier having called "dibs on the guide").

The mostly superficial tone notwithstanding, the story has a few more serious moments, although at least one plot point — the discovery of Max's actual fate — is handled so subtly that we almost miss it. While I understand the desire to keep things lighthearted, this sequence really needed to be written and directed better.

Fraser remains a skilled reluctant action hero, his short bursts of terror just as amusing as his frequently misguided suggestions. Fortunately, Trevor isn't treated as a total boob; his scientific savvy saves the trio more than once. Fraser has just the right touch for this sort of stuff, and he's always entertaining.

He also makes a good "fit" with Briem, whose tart-tongued Hannah holds up her end during all the muscular stuff, while still managing to remain a fetching hottie, particularly when the rising temperature prompts her to strip down to a tiny T-shirt. (Amazing, by the way, how Briem's hair remains perfectly coifed the entire time.)

By scripted necessity, Sean enters the story with a chip on his shoulder, but he quickly thaws; Hutcherson's own laid-back charm then comes into play. Sean remains a vulnerable kid throughout the story, but he's by no means helpless or stupid. The blend is just right.

Because this film is being released in 3D in many markets — but, sadly, not here in Davis — many of its effects and action sequences are designed with that technology in mind. Indeed, Brevig — an Academy Award-winning visual effects veteran making his directorial debut here — works this stuff rather too hard; much like the early 1950s 3D flicks, this film is littered with "in your face" bits that exist for no reason beyond thrusting something into our laps.

Sean's early fascination with a yo-yo is a perfect example. I kept expecting that the boy's newfound talent would serve some useful purpose later in the story, but no; this fixation exists only so the yo-yo can be hurled toward the camera a few times, and then the toy rather inexplicably disappears.

A little of this goes a long way; indeed, the gratuitous overuse of such effects doomed 3D both the first time, in the 1950s, and during its equally ill-fated revival in the early 1980s.

Brevig betrays his infatuation with effects for their own sake, when he could — and should — have been improving his directorial chops with his human stars.

But it's hard to be annoyed when so much of the film is pure, uncomplicated fun. Journey to the Center of the Earth certainly won't set the cinematic world on fire, but you couldn't ask for much more in the way of stress-free summer entertainment.

No comments:

Post a Comment