I find it more than a little ironic that "Journey to the Center of the Earth", the new film starring Brendan Fraser and Josh Hutcherson, is being billed as the first "Live Action" film created in the new 3-D process. Ironic because this 'live action' film is basically as cartoonish as any animated film. But it is a fun experience nonetheless. However, if I didn't see the film in 3-D, it wouldn't be worth the time and effort.
Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser), a science professor struggling to keep his missing brother's research into plate tectonics alive, is quickly reminded that his nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson, "Bridge to Terabithia", "Zathura") is coming for a visit when he and his mom show up on his doorstep. Mom is off to Canada to set-up their new home. In 10 days, Sean will board a plane and rejoin her. Sean's mom gives Trevor a box of her husband's things, because she can't bear to live with them any longer. Trevor realizes there are notes in his brother's copy of Jules Verne's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" and soon connects this with some plate activity that suddenly re-appears on one of their monitors. Trevor becomes excited and decides they have to travel to Iceland. Immediately. As they take the long plane ride, Trevor reads through the dog-eared copy of the book and announces, "There is a society of people who believe Jules Verne's writings were real", something Trevor and his missing brother apparently both believe, so he uses the paperback as a sort of map or guidebook (can Rick Steve's be far behind?). They soon hook up with Hannah (Anita Briem, TV's "The Tudors") and before you can spell "Centre", they fall through a small crack in the Earth. Thankfully, just in case we missed it, Trevor announces, "I give you… the Center of the Earth." They are soon careening down railroad tracks on runaway mine cars, trying to outrun living dinosaurs and trying to escape molten lava. And they only have a few days to do it; the area where they are is heating up and it will soon be too hot for them to survive.
"Journey to the Center of the Earth", directed by Eric Brevig, a former special effects supervisor on many films, is a decidedly fast-paced film. While this is a good thing, the director is not able to handle this fast pace and the special effects, and at the same time also develop the story and character. I suspect that because this is his first film as a director, he is not able to handle all of these various elements with the same degree of skill. His work on the special effects for films like "The Village", "K-19 The Widowmaker", "The Island", "Signs", "and Pearl Harbor" provided the resume securing the job for him. The filmmakers were looking to create a fast-paced story, filled with thrills, which could be exploited for 3-D. Story and characters be damned.
The thing about Brendan Fraser is that he is always the perfect fit for these types of roles, the sillier, the better. He has the dashing good looks, non-threatening charisma, and silly charm perfect for these 'matinee idol' throwback type roles he seems to relish. Kids, tweens, adults, everyone can find something to like in Brendan Fraser. It also helps that he isn't a very good actor. He is always more enjoyable in films like "The Mummy" (and it's sequels) and "Journey to the Center of the Earth", loud, fast-paced movies surrounding the actor with a ton of stuff going on, to help distract us from his, at best, sitcom style of acting. When they arrive at "The Center of the Earth", Trevor announces, "I give you… the Center of the Earth". Just in case we missed it. The dramatic pause is also necessary to make sure we realize how dramatic it is. Not very subtle. The characters are almost always running away from, hurtling towards something or trying to escape some impending bit of danger. Because of this, they almost never have time to take a breath, let alone try to create a character or build any emotion.
Sadly, when Fraser plays a more normal person, with the lone exception of "Gods and Monsters", the characters are nowhere near as interesting. Yes, he is good looking, but unless he is shouting or running away from some CGI creation, he doesn't seem as believable somehow.
Josh Hutcherson has a more difficult time. Initially, Sam is supposed to be your typical teen, surly, uncommunicative and unresponsive. But he too quickly abandons this persona for the sake of the story. There isn't time for him to remain this way, because they have to work together to escape a dinosaur, or to navigate rickety mine cars, or to find their way out of "The Center of the Earth". He quickly coverts and joins the cause.
Anita Briem is pretty much negligible. You recognize the need for a female to be in the group, but the pretext for her to be around is shaky at best. During the course of the film, Trevor and Hannah are supposed to set off some sparks, but they fall into the same trap set-up by the filmmakers. Everything is moving too fast. There isn't time for a conversation to begin, let alone a romance. So when they finally kiss (like that's a surprise) it is extremely forgettable.
I was also a bit surprised that so much of the film is brown or orange. I know they are in the center of the Earth, but everything takes on this dull glow giving the film an almost monotone appearance and it looks washed out. After they arrive in "The Center of the Earth", a small blue bird appears. The product of CGI artists, this bird almost becomes a bit of a mascot for the adventurous threesome. But it sticks out, a lot, because it is so different in color and really draws you eye away from everything else. It also serves to make the overall color scheme stand out all the more and makes everything seem more brown, more orange and more dull.
Early on, the characters find a map which promises to point them towards a geyser they are sure will help them escape. As soon as this document appears, this becomes the main thrust of the narrative. Everything they do is about finding this geyser, never mind the fact "The Center of the Earth" is heating up…
Let's pause for a moment… At one point, Trevor realizes they are now in an area that is 115*. Yet, despite all of the running around, very little sweat…
They have to escape to the surface. And when they do escape, they pop up in a different part of the world. Initially, this is surprising, but if you think about it, "The Center of the Earth" would be smaller, so the fact they end up in… Wait a minute! I am wasting too much time trying to make an implausible story plausible. More time than the filmmakers spent trying to make everything work out. So when Trevor, Sam, and Hannah pop up in this other part of the world, it is done for laughs. Look at the funny local with his funny accent. Har-har.
As much as there is to dislike about this film, there is something about putting on a pair of 3D glasses that just makes it better. As soon as you slip those glasses on, you become a part of a collective group, a group that is about to experience something. As much as going to the multiplex to experience a movie is a group experience, and heightens everything somehow (comedies are often funnier when you hear other people laughing, dramas more dramatic when you hear sniffles), the 3D glasses make the whole thing even better. You're part of a group about to experience a "new" thing together. And the technology has greatly improved. There are no longer little red and blue lines around some of the images. The technology, while still not perfect, is more seamless and seems to be better for all people, whether you wear glasses or not. It’s a lot of fun to sit in a packed audience with a bunch of friends and even more strangers and experience a roller coaster ride like this together.
So far, this technology has been best used for animated films like "Monster House", Disney's "Meet the Robinsons" and a re-release of "The Nightmare Before Christmas". I think the technology still lends itself better to this medium. When watching live action in 3D, too many surfaces become flat and begin to resemble cardboard cut outs on different planes. In animated films, these same problems seem to blend in more generically.
"Journey to the Center of the Earth" is a fun experience. If you watch it in 3D. Otherwise, skip it.
Without 3-D **