Friday, February 10, 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island — Harmless adventure

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG, and pointlessly, for fantasy action and mild profanity
By Derrick Bang

This film has one of the silliest scripts I’ve ever encountered.

That’s not necessarily an unkind indictment; take it more as a warning. Most films require a certain suspension of disbelief; this one demands that we abandon disbelief entirely.

On this very mysterious island, things that are supposed to be large, are
small ... and vice-versa. That'll mean plenty of huge insects waiting to
menace, from left, Hank (Dwayne Johnson), Gabato (Luiz Guzmán), Sean
(Josh Hutcherson) and Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens).
It genuinely feels as though writers Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn and Richard Outten were busily scribbling pages as the film was being shot, and madly handing fresh sheets to director Brad Peyton just in time for the next scene. Logical continuity? Forget it. Character development? What’s that?

All concerned appear to have aimed for the viewership that has made Scooby-Doo such a long-running franchise, and more recently embraced deliberately silly action shows such as the Cartoon Network’s Level Up. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily; there’s something to be said for jes’ plain dumb fun.

On the other hand, at times Journey 2: The Mysterious Island flirts with something a few rungs further up the intellectual ladder. At such moments, I was reminded of Disney’s marvelous 1962 adaptation of Jules Verne’s In Search of the Castaways, which gave Hayley Mills one of her better ’tween roles. She and co-stars Maurice Chevalier and George Sanders dealt with an avalanche, an earthquake, a volcano, a flash flood, alligators, jaguars, mutineers and cannibals, all while somehow retaining a level of droll sophistication that this film can’t deliver at its best moment.

Clearly, veteran director Robert Stevenson — who also gave Disney The Absent-Minded Professor, Mary Poppins and The Love Bug, among many others — understood the formula far better than young Mr. Peyton here, whose only previous big-screen credit was 2010’s Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.

The prosecution rests.

But I truly come not to bury this film, but to praise its virtues ... however modest they may be.

For starters, there’s something to be said for skipping the angst and exposition that normally would lace the first act of such a story. Peyton and his writers waste no time dumping our heroes into the adventure of their lives, and then it’s just one catastrophe after another, as we breezily race through this film’s economical 94 minutes. You may find it silly, but you certainly won’t be bored.

Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson), now a frustrated 17-year-old whose life has bottomed out after his incredible experiences four years earlier — as detailed in 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth — chafes under the compassionate guidance of his new step-father, Hank (Dwayne Johnson). In a word, Sean’s a pill, and he scarcely deserves Hank’s long-suffering patience.

But before we can dwell on this, Sean receives an oddly coded radio message. Hank, sensing an opportunity to bond, helps the boy decode the message; the cryptic information points not just to Verne’s The Mysterious Island, but also to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

In this script’s one genuinely clever touch, our heroes realize that these authors were writing about the same island, whose South Pacific location can be determined only by cross-referencing details from all three books.

Then, with the nonchalance normally reserved for suggesting an evening out at the movies, or a meal at a neighborhood restaurant, Hank cheerfully agrees to chaperone Sean to the South Seas. Hank assumes they won’t find anything: the point he emphasizes to reassure his wife and Sean’s mother, Liz (Kristin Davis, in a useless role).

Wasting no time, Hank and Sean fly to Palau, New Guinea, where they hope to charter a boat in order to reach the desired coordinates. But nobody will take the assignment, branding that region a death-trap of storm-tossed seas. Nobody, that is, except the mildly mercenary Gabato (Luis Guzmán), always eager to earn more money in order to help his daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens) achieve her dream of attending college in the United States.

Oh, and Gabato doesn’t pilot a ship; he flies the most dilapidated helicopter known to man. Kailani, with considerable more sense, insists that this trip is a bad idea; she’s outvoted as everybody hops aboard and takes off. One impressive hurricane later, their whirlybird is ripped to shreds, its occupants scrambled like eggs as they drop from the sky to the — goodness, yes; the mysterious island! — below.

Somehow, they all survive the fall, with nary a scratch. (I guess the beach sand was really soft.) This is the point at which savvy viewers will realize that all future peril will be overcome with similar nonchalance.

Wait, no, that’s not entirely true. One character does eventually dislocate an ankle. Not that it seems to slow things up at all...

Anyway, our quartet quickly encounters a giant lizard: a nice nod to genius animator Ray Harryhausen’s similarly massive stop-motion critters, in the 1961 film version of this book. Just when all seems lost, they’re rescued by Alexander Anderson (Michael Caine), Sean’s oft-absent paternal grandfather, and the family’s first bona fide Jules Verne scholar.

“Don’t just stand there,” Alexander scolds, after this great save. “Applaud!”

Cute line, that, and it gets used once more, under equally droll circumstances.

Alexander, marooned on this island for years, has made the most of his isolation by constructing a tree house that would have been envied by the Swiss Family Robinson (yet another 19th century author — Johann David Wyss — for those keeping track). Better yet, Alexander has labeled all of his abode’s cleverly constructed features, as if in anticipation of the moment when visitors will need such guidance. If the result resembles a Disneyland attraction, well, that’s probably not accidental.

Subsequent escapades, while getting to know their surroundings, include giant insects, the lost city of Atlantis and the fabled Captain Nemo’s final resting place. Food doesn’t seem to be an issue — nobody ever stops for lunch — and, somehow, each character’s sole outfit never suffers any damage. Hank’s shirt never even gets ripped, which seems a missed opportunity, given the pride he takes in his pecs.

Hank, Sean, Gabato and Kailani scarcely have time to absorb all this — heck, we don’t get enough time — when they learn, to their horror, that the island is sinking. Yep: Although Alexander has determined that the island routinely surfaces and then submerges in cycles of more than a century, the fickle land mass has chosen this very day to sink again.

Darn. Our heroes just can’t catch a break.

The climactic race against time, and its resolution, borrow anew from Verne: another nice nod to the source material. Suffice it to say, we’re never terribly worried.

I’ve no idea why Brendan Fraser chose to skip this sequel, since he brought so much good-natured, laid-back enthusiasm to 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. But Johnson is a game replacement, and his unexpected ukulele solo — complete with respectable vocal — is a sweet surprise.

Johnson and Caine also trade barbs quite well, as two alpha males trying to establish dominance. Caine, as always, is debonair and virtually indestructible, his cheerful grin every bit as charismatic as it was 40 years ago.

Guzmán’s Gabato is too frequently held up for ridicule, and most of his one-liners aren’t nearly as amusing as the scripters would have us believe. Hudgens isn’t expected to do much beyond supplying the eye-candy, which she handles reasonably well.

Actually, the mini-elephants and macro-insects aside, this film’s best special effect involves the way in which Hudgens’ micro-shorts never quite slip off her legs.

The biggest disappointment is Hutcherson, who sleep-walks through every scene. A story of this nature doesn’t demand much in the way of acting chops, but Hutcherson is stiff as a board, his line readings flat and unconvincing. He never displays the jovial zest everybody else delivers; more than once, I wondered what had happened to the young actor who did such fine work in Bridge to Terabithia and The Kids Are All Right.

Still, not even Hutcherson’s lackluster presence can derail this film’s comic book charm. It’s purely disposable entertainment, to be sure, but parents have done much, much worse when joining their kids for a night at the movies.

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