For decades theme parks have made attractions out of 3D movies-- Universal's Terminator 3D, or MGM's Muppets 3D-- so it makes sense that the first big live-action 3D movie of the current 3D craze feels like a theme park attraction. The journey of Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D feels like a visit to Frontierland, with boat rides, mine carts, and one heck of a log flume. Experiencing it all in glorious 3D ups the ante-- it'll be a brave 8-year-old who never finds his palms sweating.
Journey 3D is predictable, cheesy and not even a little edgy, but it's also as much fun as you're likely to have in a PG movie this summer. A retelling of Jules Verne's original story that takes the 19th-century novel as fact, the movie is a dream come true for anyone who's every imagined stepping through the wardrobe or riding the Hogwarts Express. If the lead characters are a little bland and unoriginal, it's all the better for us to put ourselves in their spelunking shoes.
Brendan Fraser stars, however improbably, as geology professor Trevor. His brother Max disappeared years earlier while researching "volcanic tubes," essentially express lanes to the center of the earth. Trevor has continued Max's research and is in danger of losing his department as a result, but during one fateful weekend visit from Max's son Sean (Josh Hutcherson), the numbers of his research align and inspire Trevor to embark again on Max's old expedition. Along the way Trevor and Sean meet up with an old scientist's daughter in Iceland (Anita Briem), and the three trek up a mountain to find one of Trevor's geologic sensors. But, of course, it's only a few wrong steps before the journey heads way, way down below.
Over the course of the intra-terrestrial adventure, there's some uncle-nephew bonding and a rote romance. But it's all reasonably interspersed among thrilling scenes of action, the better ones including jumping, flesh-eating shark that attack a raft, a rickety mine cart/roller coaster, and a T-Rex that, for whatever reason, lives happily in the earth's molten core. Each of the scenes make copious use of CGI, but with the 3D glasses and the highly unrealistic setting, it's not as egregious as it was in, say, the newest Indiana Jones.
And the 3D is used for all kinds of fun gags, like a yo-yo flying at the audience's face, or fish snapping their teeth seemingly inches away. But it also effectively draws the audience into the story in a way a normal movie this predictable couldn't manage. Moments that might otherwise be groan-inducing become much-needed comfort or comic relief for an audience that's as close to part of the action as they can get.
The chef flaw of Journey 3D is in how long it takes to get going, and how much time is dedicated to nonsense science explanations of phenomena the audience is perfectly willing to accept as is. But luckily the science talk is abandoned as soon as the trio begins its journey, and the characters spend most of their time shouting things like "Watch out!" and "Find the geyser!"
You could accuse Journey of being crudely commercial, hitting all the audience-pleasing beats without too much creativity in the mix. But that would be denying the sheer pleasure of going through an experience with a predetermined ending-- like any given romantic comedy, or, say, a roller coaster. Strap on your 3D glasses, keep your hands and arms inside the seats, and enjoy the ride.