Walden Media’s ongoing attempt to compete with the mainstream blockbuster by producing family friendly films reminds me of the wave of self-criticism in the Chinese film industry in the wake of Kung Fu Panda’s success, all focusing on the stifling atmosphere that prevents anything original or controversial from being created. Journey to the Center of the Earth, another Walden Media project thrust into the summer’s blockbuster season against such titans as The Dark Knight, is an all too unfortunate example of the problem.
Journey to the Center of the Earth has been made and remade over and over again, yet despite being a novel that captured the imagination of so many when thrown at the screen it has a way of turning into a lackluster film. Journey to the Center of the Earth is yet another lackluster entry, painfully family friendly and short on actual content. Despite its hefty budget and 3D come on, Journey to the Center of the Earth feels like a TV movie and plays out just as predictably as one. So predictably that even children in the audience should have no problem guessing what comes next, before it happens.
With only three characters and a plot involving, of all things, family, Journey to the Center of the Earth is meant to be the ultimate family movie. Unfortunately it’s the kind of family movie that condescends to the children and bores the adults out of their minds. Journey to the Center of the Earth isn’t so much a movie as an amusement park ride with lots of falling, jumping, falling on a water slide, being swept along a river and occasionally being propelled upward and once in a while being chased by a dinosaur. Some movies have the potential to be turned into amusement park rides, but Journey to the Center of the Earth is an amusement park ride in search of a movie. And that movie is hard to find.
Starring Brendan Fraser as Professor Trevor Anderson, a lecturer delivering lectures no one listens to based on his vanished brother’s theories, he’s forced to take in his nephew for a week, only to have the kid quickly unearth clues in a copy of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth that leads them to Scandinavia, where Hannah, a pretty but skeptical mountain guide, takes them into the mountains where they naturally wind up finding their way to the center of the earth.
The nephew of course wears a ski cap and a hoodie and teaches his professor uncle all about the internet by accessing Google on his PSP. The mountain guide is of course pretty and competent while Fraser’s character is a klutz, until about halfway through the movie when the mountain guide strips off her outerwear, unaccountably falls in love with Fraser’s character and reverts to a sexist stereotype of femininity, clutching him and running away from danger, while he gets to be the hero.
For fans of the book, Journey to the Center of the Earth offers the occasionally interesting twist on Verne’s original methods updated by more modern science, but it’s unfortunately buried in unreal special effects and a lightweight cast. Brendan Fraser carries as much of the movie as he can with his naturally goofy affable personality, but he doesn’t get much help from his co-stars who seem completely out of their league on the big screen and once the amusement park ride is underway, there’s not much for him to do except panic, deliver the occasional quip and run around in front of a green screen.
If you need a good way to visualize everything that’s wrong with Journey to the Center of the Earth, think back to the CGI waterfall in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Remember how Jones and the crew go over one CGI waterfall and then another bigger one and a bigger one, until you stop caring anymore because none of it seems real and no matter how well the cast tries, they can’t make any of it seem like anything more than a bunch of people trying not to look silly while pretending to go over a waterfall. That’s 90 percent of Journey to the Center of the Earth in a nutshell.
There are nice touches in Journey to the Center of the Earth and even the glowing bird who guides the boy through every turn of the underground journey isn’t as annoying as it might seem. But Journey to the Center of the Earth still suffers from the tepid touch of Walden Media that under the mandate of producing family films, produces antiseptic and lifeless productions. Written by a man whose only previous experience was on War Stories with Oliver North and directed by the visual effects supervisor from The Day After Tomorrow, Journey to the Center of the Earth feels like an expensive and lifeless TV movie that’s short on ambition, originality, characters, plot and everything that makes a movie worth watching.