Let’s be honest, 2008′s Journey to the Center of the Earth was…eh, okay. The one major factor that played a role in its box-office success was that the film was shot and released in stereoscopic 3D just before the craze truly began with the release of Avatar a year and a half later. Without the 3D, the film would have been dismissed for its weak visual f/x which barely supported a weak story. Still, even though the film’s modern take on Jules Verne’s classic novel chose to focus more on the fiction of “science fiction”, for a kid’s movie, it had a sincerity that made it somewhat appealing.
A movie makes big bucks and naturally the studio wants a follow-up. Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is a better looking feature than its predecessor, yet something feels missing and I’m not talking about its star. Brendan Fraser’s toupee wasn’t in the budget for this one, so his replacement is The Rock, aka Dwayne Johnson who has no hair at all, no doubt bringing costs down. Johnson seems to be on a roll stepping into successful franchises mid stream and being familiar with kid’s movies after a stint at Disney gives him an edge. Johnson plays Hank, a former Navy man, now proud owner of a construction company and new step-dad to Josh Hutchenson’s Sean Anderson, the only returning character from the previous film.
Sean proves to be quite a handful for Hank’s parenting skills after the film’s opening sequence, where he uses his dirt bike to lead local cops on a chase after breaking into a satellite research facility. Josh needed the facility’s hardware to fully receive a mysterious signal containing a message made from indistinguishable words that could only have been sent by a “Vernian”, someone who like him, believes the stories of Jules Verne are real. Josh suspects the signal was sent by none other than his grandfather Alexander (Michael Caine), who disappeared two years earlier during his quest to locate the “Mysterious Island” from Verne’s classic novel. In an attempt to find some common ground and connect with Sean, Hank indulges the boy and together they discover the message leads to clues hidden in Verne’s novel as well as Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Before you can ask “can you smell what ‘The Rock’ is cookin’” the duo pieced together a map with a set of coordinates that puts the island somewhere off the coast of Palau.
Fearing he’ll only find disappointment instead of his grandfather, Hank accompanies Sean to Palau where the only person crazy enough to take them into dangerous waters is helicopter pilot Gabato (Luis Guzman) much to the chagrin of his cautious and beautiful daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens). Twenty minutes into the picture, their helicopter is hit by a freak storm, sending the quartet crashing into the ocean and soon the adventure begins. When all four find their way to shore, they discover the island has been hidden amongst a set of typhoons and is very real. Just as in Verne’s novel, large creatures are small and small creatures are large as the group encounters elephants the size of dogs and lizards the size of elephants.
When Sean’s grandfather Alexander is discovered to be alive and well, he introduces them to the many great wonders of the island which include the lost city of Atlantis and a volcano that showers pure gold. Already famous for being the kid who led an expedition to the center of the earth, Sean will now share the glory with Alexander for locating the Mysterious Island. Of course it’s not that simple and there wouldn’t be much of a movie if our heroes didn’t run into a major problem. The reason why this place has never been discovered is that every century and a half the island is reclaimed by the ocean and it turns out it’s only a matter of days until it goes under yet again.
Journey 2 ultimately turns into a race, with our heroes looking to get off the island before they all end up in Davy Jones’ Locker. No, in case you were wondering, Davy Jones is not in this movie, but the group figures their best chance for escape might be locating the legendary vessel of a certain Captain Nemo, Verne’s famous antihero from the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The “Journey” movies are all based on the idea that Verne’s stories were actually fact, but in reality, the characters are just guessing that Nemo’s invention may be somewhere on the island. That’s a pretty big guess, but this is also a kid’s movie where, quite frainkly, logic gets thrown out the window.
The cast this time out are a little more visually appealing than those in the original, but their characters fail to connect with us on a level where we constantly fear for their safety. To the original film’s credit, it did a great job of establishing tension and raised the threat level that everyone might not make it out alive. At the brish pace this film moves, there is a sense of forward motion to the story, leaving hardly a dull moment. Hutchenson has matured quite a bit since his first outing, yet his line readings are rather flat. Guzman makes for descent comic relief without wearing out his welcome and Caine adds some dramatic weight as a man who slowly realizes he’s chosen science over family when he has a grandson who needs him back home. Caine has an uncanny ability to make the best of even the worst material, though at times he feels like a grubby version of Batman’s Alfred, yelling at Christian Bale. There’s a rivalry for Sean’s affections between Alexander and Hank that doesn’t really work and feels forced. Hank grits his teeth at Alexander’s smart remarks, even telling him “Don’t call me Henry.” Well, we’re sure as heck not gonna call you Indiana Jones, even though you have a fear of reptiles.
Vanessa Hudgens was basically cast to be eye candy here and for the most part, she serves her purpose. The sour faced Hutchenson only seems to come alive when she’s around as Sean’s hormones begin to rage in the presence of Kailani. As expected, Johnson is the only actor who seems to realize just what kind of film he’s signed on for; a kid’s movie where you basically check your brain at the door. Once again he demonstrates presence as an authority figure and leader with just the right touch of sensitivity that makes his budding friendship with Hutchenson feel realistic. Johnson is also rather charming at times and I’m not talking about the infamous moment from the trailer where he pops his pecs. For most of the film I kept wondering why Guzman’s character continued to carry a ukulele in his back pack, since he was the last person I wanted to hear sing a song with it. It’s actually Johnson who makes use of the instrument in a heartfelt rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World” by the campfire, where he even adds his own lyrics. Sounds cheesy, but I found this bright moment in the film to be more appealing than any action sequence.
Journey 2 features plenty of action with our heroes, running, jumping and even swimming deep underwater (with make shift scuba tanks?). One major action sequence features the group riding a set of bees the size of horses across the island only to be chased by giant birds. Its one of those moments that nearly took me out of the movie because the visual f/x take over, but I also had to keep in mind that a young kid would find this exciting. I’m not the target audience this film was made for and as an adult I can only suspend my disbelief for so long. Kids will not doubt find this to be a more engaging and humorous outing than the original even though the characters are not as interesting. If your reason for seeing this is to pacify them for a few hours, they won’t be disappointed.