Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Adventure Time: JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND

There was no good reason to get excited about Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. It’s a late arriving sequel to the little-loved 2008 family movie Journey to the Center of the Earth, a loose adaptation of the Jules Verne classic. It was a cheesy, erratic, CGI monstrosity that took full, sloppy, insufferable advantage of the then-novelty of a 3D resurgence. Of that movie I can only recall a mugging Brendan Fraser and a moment in which Seth Meyers smirks as he thrusts a tape measure out of the screen. Having seen this new movie, I must admit that my reticence was unfounded. Journey 2 is a fun time at the movies, a gee-whiz spectacle made with great energy and an authentic, pleasing sense of adventure.

Ditching just about everything that made up its predecessor up to and including the writers, the director, and most of the cast, Journey 2 makes it nice and easy to recommend ignoring its sequel status and jumping right in. It doesn’t take much time at all for the script by Brian and Mark Gunn to get the plot off and running. A teenage boy who considers himself an explorer (Josh Hutcherson) convinces his stepfather (Dwayne Johnson) to help him try to find The Mysterious Island. You know, the one that Jules Verne wrote about.

This island has to be real since the boy has picked up a coded message transmitted from the middle of nowhere that has to be, just has to be, from his missing grandfather (Michael Caine). Proving the existence of this island was the old man’s life’s work. I like how the kid figures out where the secret message originates by casting aside his iPad and paging through dusty volumes of fantasy literature and comparing the map inside The Mysterious Island with the ones inside Gulliver’s Travels and Treasure Island. You see, these maps all have clues as to finding the actual Mysterious Island, because, why not?

Sensing an opportunity to bond with his stepson, the trip is planned. Stepfather and stepson hitch a ride on a rickety helicopter with the owner (Luis Guzman) and his plucky teenaged daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). They all get sucked into a swirling storm cloud that deposits them onto the unknown shores of Mysterious Island. There they find grandpa of course, as well as gigantic bugs, gargantuan lizards, and miniature elephants. It’s a veritable phantasmagoric jungle menagerie of identifiable beasts in unexpected sizes. The movie is little more than these broadly sketched and immensely likable characters hiking through the jungle and encountering these strange sights. “You should have expected mysterious things,” the stepson tells his stepfather. “It’s in the title.”

This group is made up of easily identifiable types played with earnest, affable verve. The boy adventurer, the strong-but-kind muscle man, the white-haired veteran explorer, the pretty girl, and the comic relief are imbued with characteristics that bounce off each other in ways that are the right mix of predictable and comfortable. With someone as charismatic and charming as Dwayne Johnson, the other actors are left scrambling to win audiences’ affection. The effort pays off. I found I liked spending time with them as they spend their screen time marveling at strange sights and running away from them when things get dangerous, all the while trying to find a way off this island without getting stomped on, eaten up, or submerged under water.

The movie is a particularly enjoyable version of this particular kind of movie, the kind of movie that gets a kick out of giants beasts lumbering about and flying around in classic Ray Harryhausen style, albeit in a just-convincing-enough modern CGI fashion instead of that special effects master’s use of stop-motion animation. (In fact, Harryhausen did the effects for a 1961 adaptation of The Mysterious Island, a film I absolutely need to see). Director Brad Peyton (who made his directorial debut in 2010 with Cats & Dogs 2, which is best forgotten) handles the large-scale effects and the swift script with a nice, unhurried style. It’s just plain sturdy adventure filmmaking. It’s bright, colorful, and energetic with big monsters, beautiful scenery, and an exuberant and agreeable use of 3D effects. (Objects noticeably pop out and extend backwards without being too distracting).  It’s a B-movie matinee right out of the 1950s when it would have been called something like a boy’s adventure story and played to theaters of happy children on a Saturday afternoon.

The fact of the matter is, that I saw this movie in a theater filled with happy children just last Saturday afternoon. They howled and giggled and exclaimed right on cue. Reader, I could totally see where they were coming from. The fact of the matter is, the movie just plain works. This is not an especially ambitious movie, but it’s a satisfying one for what it is. It’s good-natured and sweet, with a relaxed sense of humor that’s only sometimes too easy or corny. It’s silly and it knows it. The movie comes with a nice family-friendly moral without becoming moralizing, with zippy action sequences that are exciting without becoming frightening. What can I say? It put a big goofy grin on my face.

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