Thursday, April 12, 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island / ** (PG)

Sean: Josh Hutcherson
Hank: Dwayne Johnson
Alexander: Michael Caine
Kailani: Vanessa Hudgens
Gabato: Luis Guzmán
Liz: Kristin Davis

New Line Cinema presents a film directed by Brad Peyton. Written by Brian Gunn & Mark Gunn and Richard Outten. Based on the novel by Jules Verne. Running time: 94 min. Rated PG (for some adventure action and brief mild language).

I remember watching the 1961 version of Jules Verne’s sci-fi classic “Mysterious Island” with stop motion creature visual effects by the great Ray Harryhausen. It was a marvel to my seven-year-old brain and imagination. It was scary and wonderful to think of an island where the tiniest of creatures were giant behemoths, and the largest animals could be picked up and carried like lap dogs. I would imagine that “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” probably has a similar effect for children under a certain age.

The title “Journey 2” might be confusing for some who don’t remember that a few summers ago “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, based on another of Jules Verne’s novels, was a sleeper hit. That movie’s star, Brendan Frasier, did not return for this sequel that cleverly updates Verne’s novel “The Mysterious Island” into the themes of the first film. Josh Hutcherson (“The Hunger Games”) returns as Sean, a boy whose dad disappeared while dedicating his life to prove that Verne’s novels weren’t works of fiction.

Instead of having to deal with Frasier’s uncle, this time Sean has to try and get along with his new stepfather, played by Dwayne Johnson (“Fast Five”), who also takes over co-producing duties for this sequel. Despite the fact that Sean has been acting out and getting into trouble with the law, Johnson’s Hank thinks it might be a good idea for him to travel to the South Pacific with the boy after he receives a coded message from his long lost grandfather Alexander, who claims to have found Verne’s Mysterious Island.

The two hire father and daughter tour guides to fly them to this island that no ship can approach because of the rough weather that surrounds it. Although Luis Guzmán (“Arthur”) isn’t exactly Don Juan as the father, it’s really no surprise that the daughter is played by the attractive Vanessa Hudgens (“High School Musical”). After the worst helicopter ride in the history of flight, the foursome find themselves looking at miniature elephants on Verne’s peculiar island where big things are small and small things are big. It’s better to suppress queries about the relative size of humans in such an environment.

Just as soon as grandpa Alexander (Michael Caine, “The Dark Knight”) finds them, the plot quickly moves the adventure into an escape as the group discovers that the island holds the lost city of Atlantis and is quickly sinking back into the sea. The tie in with Atlantis isn’t half as shocking in this movie as it was in last year’s “Atlas Shrugged, Part 1”, but it’s a bit disappointing that the plot moves so quickly from discovering the island to escaping the island.

I haven’t read Verne’s novel, but I wonder if it holds so little story as this movie does. I seem to remember from the 1961 version that the people trapped on the island had to struggle to survive its unusual environment for a while before they were forced to leave. It also helped that they wanted to leave. In this movie there are several characters who want to stay and explore it, but the plot never gives them that chance. This exaggerates the notion that the plot only exists as an excuse to place these people into situations where CGI wizardry can show the audience incredible sights with no purpose. Why couldn’t they stop and explore it for a while? There are so many fascinating things to see on this island that it’s a shame the filmmakers don’t take the time to really show them to you.

I’m sure this movie works just as well for its target audience of 6-12 year olds as the 1961 version worked for me. I’m also quite confident that the ’61 version isn’t quite as good as my 7-year-old brain remembered it. Much of what Verne and his contemporaries like H.G. Wells were trying to explore with their sci-fi fantasies were the very bounds of the human imagination. “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” on the other hand seems content with merely reproducing some of the imagery of Verne’s book. There’s no substance or lessons to be gleaned from this movie. It’s all spectacle and no story. The actors are charming, but given little to work with. Should there be a “Journey 3”, hopefully the filmmakers will pay a little more attention to Verne’s purpose.

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