Note: This double-sided DVD includes the movie in three formats: a full-screen version in 2-D, a widescreen version in 2-D, and a widescreen version in 3-D. You'll find my comments about each of the formats in the Video section below.
The French novelist Jules Verne (1828-1905) probably made a bigger contribution to the world of science fiction than any writer who ever lived, yet the cinema has most always treated him rather shabbily. With the exception of Disney's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," movies have handed us a range of silly permutations on "A Trip to the Moon," "Around the World in Eighty Days," "Mysterious Island," etc., and almost a dozen variations on "Journey to the Center of the Earth," the most-famous previous film version starring Pat Boone, acting and singing.
Now, we've got New Line's 2008, 3-D production of "Journey" starring Brendan Fraser, hamming it up in full Indiana Jones, tongue-in-cheek mode as though he were still looking for mummies to dispatch. Well, at least he doesn't sing at us. Actually, this new "Journey" is a perfectly serviceable rendering of the Verne story for children, although adults may find it a rather juvenile, scatterbrained affair, with many of its shots intended more to show off the 3-D process than to further its story line. For a pure, Saturday-afternoon, children's matinee adventure, it can have its moments, so the film is not a total loss. Just don't expect to take any of it seriously, which must have poor Verne turning over in his grave.
There are several reasons why the movie didn't work for me, the primary one being that I am not of the age demographic the filmmakers were trying to reach. Here are a few specifics: First, Verne set his story in his own time, the mid 1860s. The current filmmakers set their story in the present, the better to reach a younger audience for whom historical dramas might be a turnoff. Either that or the filmmakers couldn't afford the period costumes and sets; I don't know. Second, Verne's characters were a middle-aged professor; the professor's nephew, presumably in his late teens or early twenties because he marries his sweetheart when they return from their adventure; and an Icelandic man who serves as their guide as they climb down a volcano shaft. The filmmakers, though, give us Brendan Fraser as the professor, a thirteen-year-old boy (Josh Hutcherson) as the nephew, and a beautiful young woman (Anita Briem) as the guide. Again the filmmakers are targeting the youth market. Finally, we get a whole slew of actions and special effects that the filmmakers intended specifically for the 3-D production, things that pop up about every ten seconds and have little or nothing to do with the story line or characters. Be prepared for yo-yos, tape measures, balls, rocks, and all matter of debris to come flying off the screen at you.
And the fact that the events in the story are far more preposterous than anything Verne could have invented is probably beside the point; we have come to expect exaggerated theatrics in today's adventure movies. Besides, Eric Brevig directed the film, and it was his first big-screen directorial effort after spending most of his Hollywood career as a visual effects supervisor. So what did you expect from the movie but a world of visual effects?
Otherwise, the movie retains some semblance of Verne's plot. We do have the professor, the nephew, and the guide. We do have the volcano in Iceland they climb (or fall) down. We do have all the typical hazards for which movies like this have prepared us: man-eating plants, man-eating fish, and anything-eating dinosaurs. You know, the usual.
Don't expect anything to make sense, though; the filmmakers have calculated every calamity that befalls the trio to highlight some new 3-D effect. If you're not watching in 3-D, much of the goings on look seriously dumb. There's even a roller-coaster ride in mine carts down an old mine shaft, a ride similar to the one in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" (and there's more "Temple of Doom" action toward the end of the movie when the trio slide down a mountain).
Frankly, I preferred the old Pat Boone rendition of the story better than this one; it actually had more realistic thrills, if you can believe it. This movie is more like a Disneyland ride, the emphasis on the glitter and glamor of the CGI effects rather than on any kind of tension, suspense, or excitement. Worse, much of the computer graphics aren't too convincing. For example, the trio's raft venture on an underground ocean didn't seem too real to me, nor did some of the creatures they encountered. Add in a flock of cutesy birds that seem to have flown in from a Disney cartoon, and you get a film that kids will undoubtedly enjoy at the expense of more than a few parents.
Oh, and in the best tradition of adventure movies everywhere, the heroine sheds more and more of her clothing as the story goes on. But don't worry: It gets a PG rating.
New Line provide three screen formats on a single, dual-sided disc, all three versions looking significantly different from the others. There's a full-screen pan-and-scan affair in regular 2-D that the discriminating viewer might best forget, since it cuts off about thirty percent of the sides of the original image. There's a 2-D, 1.85:1-ratio widescreen version that reproduces the movie's theatrical-release dimensions. And there's a 3-D widescreen version that also replicates the way a lot of audiences watched the movie in a motion-picture theater.
I watched about two minutes of the pan-and-scan version, and then left that behind and watched about fifteen or twenty minutes of the 3-D version. I admit that the 3-D presentation was quite pleasing in its dimensionality and made the few minutes I stuck with it something of a kick. However, I couldn't stick with it for long because of the 3-D cardboard-and-cellophane glasses. They were just too uncomfortable to deal with for very long. Now, here's the thing: If you don't normally wear eyeglasses, the 3-D glasses are simply an annoyance on the nose. But if you do wear eyeglasses for distance, as I do, the 3-D glasses are downright impossible. I tried wearing them outside my regular glasses and got nowhere. They wouldn't stay put. Next, I tried wearing the 3-D glasses under my own eyeglasses; again, no dice. They actually hurt. Worse, I couldn't get them to focus properly in either location. I remember having this same problem several years before with "Spy Kids 3-D," and I resorted to cutting the cardboard 3-D glasses apart and taping them to my eyeglasses. Even that didn't work, though, so I didn't try it this time. Instead, I turned the disc over and watched the movie in regular 2-D.
In 2-D, the first thing I noticed was that the colors had an oddly purple tinge to them, much as the 3-D presentation had, and they were never quite right until the very end of the movie, where they suddenly became bright and glossy; I never figured that out. In addition, the colors in 2-D look more than a bit washed out, possibly a condition of the 3-D cinematography or possibly the result of New Line's compression, squeezing two separate versions of the movie onto one side of a disc. The second thing I noticed was that the image looked slightly blurred and soft; then I remembered that the filmmakers shot the movie using digital 3-D cameras, so it is possible to attribute the lack of ultimate focus to the digital photography as well as to the collapsed 3-D processing. In any case, the disc's video quality did not impress me in 2-D, and in 3-D it was too hard for me to watch. I couldn't win with this one in any case, and my Video rating below reflects this quandary.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound does about what one would expect of an adventure-movie soundtrack. It displays a good dynamic response, strong impact, and an abundance of rear-channel surround effects, like creepy underground noises, bang, booms, creaking, and cracking. There were times when it also displayed a small degree of harsh, edgy distortion, but these times were thankfully few.
Besides making the movie available in three separate formats on a single, double-sided disc, New Line provide a few other items as well. First up, on all the formats there's an audio commentary by star Brendan Fraser and director Eric Brevig. After that, there are three featurettes: "A World Within Our World," ten minutes of discussion on various hollow-Earth theories through the ages; "Being Josh," six minutes following actor Josh Hutcherson around the set; and "How to Make a Dino Drool," three minutes on the making of that particular effect. Following the featurettes is a game segment, "Adventure at the Center of the Earth," that includes a "Ride the Mine Car" game and a "Bat the Fish" game, both based on events in the movie and both equally unimpressive.
In addition, the package contains four pairs of 3-D glasses; access to a digital copy of the film, compatible with Windows media only, not with Apple Macintosh or iPod devices; twenty-one scene selections; a slipcover with a 3-D holographic picture on the front; English and Spanish spoken languages; Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
If your idea of a good movie is an amusement-park ride, then "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is a good movie. For kids, it should be great fun. For this adult, however, it was something of a chore, in 2-D or 3-D.
Next up for Fraser and company: the search for Atlantis, if the ending is any indication.