I like Brendan Fraser. I like his amiably goofy everyguy persona, and it’s fun to watch him have adventures and survive by the skin of his teeth. He’s a much more talented comedian than many give him credit for, as well as a skilled dramatic actor. He’s never quite had the breakthrough he should have to become a top-ranked leading man, but he’s done creative work in some technically accomplished films, both comedy (Looney Tunes: Back in Action, Monkeybone, Bedazzled) and action (The Mummy, and now Journey to the Center of the Earth).
This movie is pitched as a family-friendly action-adventure, and that’s exactly what it is. Single-guy hero professor Trevor Anderson gets instant family by taking care of nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson, who also provides a surrogate for the younger viewers). Kid gets adventure of a lifetime, gains appreciation of non-digital activities, and learns more about his dead father.
Sean and Trevor discover that the Jules Verne novel that the movie is named after is true, and Max (Sean’s father and Trevor’s brother) was investigating it when he disappeared 10 years ago. Beautiful blonde Icelandic Hannah (Anita Briem, who kicks butt) becomes their guide due to a connection between her deceased father and Max. They get trapped in a cave, find their way underground, and the rest of the film is a series of life-threatening set pieces: rappelling, mine car roller coaster (where the green screen first becomes really obvious, giving a feeling of unbelievability even before the plot rams the lack of realism home — but who watches a big-budget spectacular for realism?), an Alice-in-Wonderland-like endless fall, walking into an obvious painting that’s intended to be a never-before-seen underground fairyland, various monster attacks, and so on.
In some ways, this is more cartoony than the movies Fraser made with actual animation. I suspect that’s the influence of production company Walden Media, which emphasizes family-friendly, life-affirming adventure with acceptable morality (which might explain the minimal chemistry between the two adult leads here). Perhaps as a result, their films — which include Holes, The Chronicles of Narnia, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, Nim’s Island, and City of Ember, just to name a few — wind up having little impact. You don’t have to fear your kids watching them, but they haven’t been as successful in theaters as hoped, either, although I suspect they do quite well on DVD.
Speaking of which, this single disc is double-sided. One side has the 3-D widescreen version of the film (the package comes with four pairs of cardboard glasses); the other is 2-D, with a choice of widescreen or fullscreen. I tried starting with the 3-D version, but it looks fuzzy without the glasses. With them, none of the colors looked right to me. (I think my eyes were fighting each other for dominance.) So I swapped over to standard flat.
You can tell the movie was engineered for 3-D from the camera angle choices. Lots of things aim at the viewer, some more sensible than others. They range from a fall during a dinosaur chase to a yo-yo spinning out of the screen to Brendan spitting into the sink while brushing his teeth, with the camera in place of the drain. (Ick.) Ultimately, when you combine the visual gimmick with the exaggerated events and the lack of attention to detail (backpacks, left behind, mysteriously reappear; shirts are wet in different ways whenever camera angles change; books and papers stay dry even though their carriers are drenched through), the result is adrenaline-fueled eye candy that doesn’t bear too much thinking about.
The packaging is impressive. There’s a lenticular cover, the better to attempt to capture a 3-D feel, and two stickers. One promotes the 3-D glasses and mentions that the box includes both versions of the film. Another says “Get a Digital Copy“. If you read the fine print (it’s a little brochure in itself), that’s only for those in the U.S. who use PCs running Windows XP Vista with IE 6 or above and a DVD-ROM drive and a broadband internet connection and a Windows Media Player PlaysForSureTM device (a brand which is now dead; licensors are supposed to call it “certified for Windows Vista“). The download is only available through next April, six months from DVD release. (And they wonder why people search for movie copies online. Even a legal owner of the DVD with all the right boxes checked would find this onerous.) It also says “Additional charges apply,” but I have no idea what they might be. Maybe that’s lawyer-speak for “you have to pay for the internet access”?
The special features include a commentary by Brendan Fraser and director Eric Brevig. That’s available on either side of the disc, while the 2-D side also includes
- “A World Within Our World”, a history of hollow earth theories narrated by Briem
- “Being Josh”, a day in the life of the child actor
- “How to Make Dinosaur Drool”, a slimy substance used in one sequence – I found it pointless, but kids will probably enjoy the debates over how thick and gross to make it
- Two games, both of which consist of you pushing whichever arrows it tells you to
Overall, this is the modern, high-tech, big-effect version of a Sunday afternoon movie: not too challenging, easy to pick up if your attention wanders temporarily, and comfortable in content. I enjoyed watching it in just that context. (A complimentary copy of this DVD was provided by the studio for purposes of review.)