Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Don't Stop Believing

When Journey to the Center of the Earth was remade as a 3D adventure film starring Brendan Fraser in 2008, I'm not sure box office experts realized what would come next. Here was a film rebuilt not only from an already classic 1959 release, but also an historic science fiction novel by the legendary Jules Verne. Top that off with the implementation of 3D tech (and mind you, this was a year before 3D actually got anywhere close to quality) and you had a film release with "Box Office Bomb" written all over it. But you can never underestimate the family film, and parents took their spawn to the theaters in droves for Journey, and while for the year it was no Hancock, Wall-E or Wanted in the blockbuster sense, the film was successful enough that a sequel was definitely a foregone conclusion. Four years later, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island has made its way to our shores (after a worldwide release tour), and what a difference time makes. Of course, the 3D has come a long way. I've dedicated whole posts to the changes the tech has seen the past few years, so we hardly need a reminder once again. There were other major changes, with 2008 stars Fraser and Anita Briem out of the picture and former professional wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson headlining a new cast. Johnson has been in front of some popular family films the last few years, and no matter how much some people would like to see him prosper as an action star, until bombs and explosions can match his earnings in fare such as The Game Plan or The Tooth Fairy, he's going to keep making these kid-friendly titles for the foreseeable future.

The casting on the new Blues Brothers sequel gets a bit out of hand.
Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson, reprising his earlier role here) is one of the few people in the world who believes that the literary works of Jules Verne are not the tales of fiction everyone believes, but in fact based on real life places and stories. Known as Vernians, the Anderson family has searched the world over to uncover those secrets. When Sean discovers a faint radio transmission, he and his stepfather Hank Parsons (Johnson) travel halfway around the world to investigate. Sean believes the signal originated from his grandfather Alexander (Michael Caine), who has spent much of his adult life searching for the Mysterious Island of Verne legend. Hank isn't so sure, and is tagging along to become closer with the boy he's trying to help raise. After hiring a helicopter pilot (Luiz Guzman) and his teenage daughter (Vanessa Hudgens) to fly them out to the coordinates, the four crash-land on an island that only a few people thought actually existed. They've discovered the Mysterious Island, but when trouble rears its ugly head, it will take all their wits to survive and escape the dangers the place presents.

Michael Caine, you've been voted off of the island.
I'm of two minds when I contemplate my time watching Journey 2. On one hand, I want to bash it like comedian Gallagher with so many watermelons, since the entire thing feels like a cheap adventure flick, and dumbed down to boot. Lacking any real coherent plot or character development, it's incredibly difficult to take the film even remotely seriously. There's no doubt in my mind that the producers of this film set out to make a widely-appealing adventure film for kids, and they broke no rules nor stretched any boundaries to make that happen. Then again... I have to admit that the kid in me (the one who likes Kix cereal) actually had a decent time in the theater, and it wasn't just because of the half-dozen mojitos I consumed in preparation. For all its obvious faults, Journey 2 does manage to trot out a few surprises to make the experience much more entertaining than it really should have any right to claim.

"'All your base are belong to us?' What kind of secret code is this?"
One of the biggest additions is also arguably the biggest thing on the screen. And no, I'm not talking about Journey 2's CGI lizards or bumblebees. Once known worldwide as "The Brahma Bull", Johnson remains as charismatic as his had been in his early wrestling days, and his good looks, easygoing attitude and charismatic smile will win audiences over every time. Able to switch between serious and embarrassing parental figure on a dime, he's also has the benefit of playing the film's most well-rounded character. He even gets to pull out a few hitherto unexpected talents in this film, but I'll leave those for you to discover. He's easily the film's #1 asset, stealing just about every scene with perfect comic timing, not to mention quality acting.

"So... come here often?"
It's a shame that the rest of the cast either is not as interesting or doesn't seem to have as much fun as Johnson. Hutcherson has been a recent standout in cinema, and many consider him the unsung hero of the vastly overrated The Kids are All Right. 2012 will prove to be a big year for the young actor, as he holds major roles in the much anticipated adaptation of The Hunger Games and the remake of Cold War classic Red Dawn. Here, Hutcherson displays that his least effort is still better than the average Shia LaBoeuf performance, though that's really not saying much. Suffice it to say he is tolerable, if not exactly proving himself leading man material. Worse is Vanessa Hudgens, another young actress who hasn't proven that she belongs outside of High School. Sure, she has a pretty face (and other... attributes), but the longer she relies on her physical "talents" to get by, the longer it will take for the rest of us to get what supposedly makes her so special. Michael Caine is really slumming it up here. I'm not sure Caine really cares what he does these days; if he does it really doesn't show in his resume for the past few years. He'll lend his voice or presence to just about anything, and he seems to be enjoying himself, but long gone are the leading roles that defined his once-noble career. And Luis Guzman is plain old comic relief, with every word he speaks intended to force laughter from audience members' lips. Sure, it's a bit forced, but there are some good moments (as the group tries to stealthily cross a field filled with giant eggs, Guzman quips "We are literally walking on eggshells"), and Guzman is a better performer than most people realize, with a comic timing approaching that of Johnson.

Wow, Indy really let himself go.
Of course, acting is not the draw of a movie like Journey 2; that would be the point of all those special effects that you've witnessed in the commercials and glimpsed on the movie posters. There are some nice visuals in the beginning, and the first images of the Mysterious Island are absolutely magical when beheld. Sadly, the honeymoon effect doesn't last long, and when it runs out you'll start wishing you hadn't shelled out the extra five bucks to see this film in 3D. Actually, the 3D is fine, but the special effects themselves cease to be incredible after a few scenes, as you will practically see the green screen the actors are pantomiming before. Too often, the film feels like a second-rate animated film with live actors plugged in, and it really diminishes the authentic feel you perceive early on.

I'm guessing they're not looking at Thumbelina.

While I would have loved it if the film could have infused a little more Verne mythos into the main story, I'm not sure it could have helped this title too much, as Journey 2 is far from smart enough to be considered a quality film. It's a dumbed-down film for kids, and director Brad Peyton and his financiers obviously had no illusions of making it otherwise. That said, at least it's a marginally fun one, though luck and the promise of even lesser releases in the future will be all that keeps it out of the year's worst list this coming December. For right now it's the #9 film of 2012. Please don't tell me you expected anything more.

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