The contemporary re-imagining of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" that hit theaters in 2008 was something of a surprise. While the film wasn't an award winner, it was a fun romp through a fantastical world. Brendan Fraser brought a playful exuberance to his role as the cynical doubter proven wrong while Josh Hutcherson took on the role of 13-year-old Sean — a child who still believed in the impossible. Three-and-a-half years later, Hutcherson returns for the sequel as Sean, while Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) fills the role of the lovable cynic. Unfortunately, much of the magic is missing this time around.
Much like the first film, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" relies on the idea that much of classical fiction isn't really fiction at all, but rather the truth retold as fiction simply because the truth wouldn't have been believed at the time. The stories inspiring this adventure are Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Jules Verne's Mysterious Island. Elements of all three appear in the film.
After decoding a mysterious radio transmission, Sean and his stepfather Hank (Johnson) travel to the Pacific island of Palau where they attempt to hire a tour guide to take them to the mysterious island. Gabato (Luis Guzmán) and his daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens) are the only ones willing to do it, so the four set off. It is at this point that the film starts to show its weaknesses.
There are a handful of scenes (an opening dirt bike sequence being one of them) that were obviously filmed just for the 3-D effect, but the helicopter flight into the maelstrom is perhaps the worst offender. Any semblance of realism is lost, with visuals that are clearly 100% CGI. As the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films showed us, the depiction of a good storm on the screen can be breathtaking, but when it slides into the arena of overwrought CGI and 3-D still frames, it becomes unintentionally comical. Thankfully, not all the CGI work is this bad, but it does periodically dip to this level throughout.
Where "Journey 2" does excel is in the visuals of the island itself. Sure, the exotic animals are impressive and the volcano is imposing, but the real winner is the cinematography that highlights the lush island vistas. Filmed on location in Hawaii, some of the shots are enough to make you lust for a tropical island of your own.
If weak CGI work was the worst element of "Journey 2," it could have still held its own as a popcorn flick, but the inconsistent visual quality is matched by an inconsistent story. Whereas the original film had a strong sense of adventure and things were always moving forward, here the story feels like a collection of disjointed scenes. Rather than flowing naturally from one sequence to another, the script feels like someone just scooped up a bunch of ideas that sounded good individually and then decided to mash them together without rhyme or reason. How else can you explain a scene where Johnson is excitedly bouncing wild berries off his pecs before they shoot out at the audience?
When the action does happen, it can be impressive, but even then things often feel like they've been stretched out too long, resulting in scenes seemingly padded for time rather than edited for clarity.
Amongst the actors, Johnson and Guzmán play off each other well. The odd berry scene aside, Johnson mixes wonderment and compassion well, even while serving as the strong leader of the group. His best scene is one in which he reinterprets a classic song specifically for the film. Guzmán is there primarily as comic relief, though his character also shows a genuine concern for his daughter's future. Michael Caine also does a fine turn as Sean's eccentric grandfather.
Compared to the others, Hutcherson and Hudgens end up falling flat. Hutcherson's character never moves much past his arrogance, making what should be a heartfelt scene at the climax feel flat. Hudgens manages to look good on screen and will no doubt please an audience of tween boys, but she also fails to bring any depth beyond that of a pouty girl to her performance.
Whereas "Journey to the Center of the Earth" was an enjoyable family film that could appeal to both kids and adults, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" is something that really only works for the younger set. The colorful imagery, in-your-face 3-D effects and big action sequences should please pre-teen and tween viewers, even if the adults in the crowd find themselves groaning silently. It's a film that hints at flashes of genius, but never really follows through on its promise.
"Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes. It is showing in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX 3-D.
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