Apparently, I saw 2008’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” but remembering anything about it required digging out my old review, in which I noted, “an afternoon spent enjoying jumbo sodas and the 3-D effects of ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’ isn’t the worst way to kill a few hours. Just think of it more as an E-Ticket attraction and less as an actual movie.”
Innocuous time-killing remains the agenda of the sequel, “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” a movie that proves that you can build an entire franchise out of not sucking. These movies are the equivalent of those pre-made sandwiches you buy at Starbucks — not bad for you, and not entirely lacking in flavor, but nothing particularly memorable, either.
Josh Hutcherson returns as Sean Anderson, who in the first movie — and again, it was only in reading my review that I remember any of this — found a kingdom far beneath the earth’s surface by treating Jules Verne’s novel “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as a factual guidebook. This time around, Sean intercepts a radio message that he believes came from his grandfather Alexander (Michael Caine), who’s spent the last two years trying to find Verne’s legendary “Mysterious Island.”
In the hopes that their trek will be a bonding experience, Sean’s stepfather Hank (Dwayne Johnson) volunteers to accompany the teenager to Palau, where they hire tour guide Gabato (Luis Guzmán) and his daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens) to take them to the coordinates, even though locals know the area as a place where ships go to disappear. Their helicopter, like the boat in Verne’s novel, goes into a hurricane and emerges in a hidden and wondrous land where elephants are as small as puppies and birds and bumblebees are the size of late-model sedans.
Director Brad Peyton (“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”) galumphs through the material with a reasonable degree of competence, with the requisite chase scenes and precipice-dangling thrown in every few minutes. The special effects vary wildly, however, with their flaws made manifest even more vividly in 3-D — the giant angry lizard, for instance, has the tangible realness of the great movie monsters, but the crash of the helicopter looks distractingly fake.
Where Peyton really bobbles is in the handling of his actors; Hutcherson’s angry, abandoned teen was the original film’s one element that felt fresh and real, but here he comes off as generically arrogant. Johnson’s performance comes with a self-satisfaction level that indicates he hasn’t gotten pro wrestling entirely out of his system, and what’s supposed to be a comic rivalry with Caine feels uncomfortably like mutual disdain because of the awkwardness of their interplay.
(Still, they say the biggest part of acting is listening, and Caine deserves points for having to listen to Johnson sing “What a Wonderful World” on the ukulele.)
The usually reliable Guzmán tries to inject some life into his corny dialogue (not that he makes the slightest effort to sound less like a Mexican-American and more like a Pacific Islander) and Hudgens gets saddled with a thankless role that gives her nothing to play. “Bandslam” proved that she’s got a wickedly deadpan sense of humor when the dialogue allows it, but here she’s just the headstrong girl who’s destined to fall in the love with the hero strictly because the screenplay says so.
Still, the movie zips by inoffensively, and heaven knows there aren’t enough kids’ movies that tacitly encourage reading classic literature, so families could certainly do worse than to sign on for this “Journey.”
(Screening with “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” is a new 3-D animated short, “Daffy’s Rhapsody,” and while it’s better than the disconcerting “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat” cartoon that was attached to “Happy Feet Two,” it’s yet another piece that assumes that Looney Tunes fans really wanted to see realistically-rendered feathers and 3-D spittle. You’re better off sticking with Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd in their original, 2-D versions.)