Journey to the Center of the Earth (3D)

(2008) ** 1/2 Pg
93 min. New Line Cinema, Warner Bros. Pictures Distribution. Director: Eric Brevig. Cast: Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem.

/content/films/3136/12.jpgThough one of the gimmicks of Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D is that Jules Verne's 1864 novel was a non-fiction account, the film by longtime effects whiz/first-time director Eric Brevig has a winking, kid-friendly sense of unreality. The special effects are often painterly and decidedly fantastical, the science is exalted but junky, and the leading man is Brendan Fraser. 'Nuff said. Of course, the other gimmick of the film is right there in the title, a 3D treatment that will take you back to the days you spent with your ViewMaster, or perhaps rep house screenings of cheesefests like House of Wax.

The story is simple: following the trail of "Vernians" who took dear old Jules literally, tectonic-physics professor Trevor Anderson (Fraser), his 13-year-old nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson of Bridge to Terabithia), and mountain guide Hannah Ásgeirsson (Anita Briem) travel thousands of miles into the Earth to "a world within the world" in a scientific pursuit that almost claims their lives. As for plot development, it's one thing after another. Once the trio falls into a seemingly bottomless pit, it's a nonstop tour of fantastic sights (giant dandelions and mushrooms), bizarre phenomena (a floating field of magnetic rocks), and threatening creatures (carnivorous plants). The dialogue is no great shakes (Trevor: "Doesn't it just blow your mind?" Hannah: "My mind is blown, yes."), but at least the story extols the virtues of scientific field work (while overstating its thrills).

Brevig, who supervised effects on such Spielberg productions as Hook and Men in Black, crafts a mine-car roller-coaster ride that's a straight rip from the family-action maestro (as for the rampaging T-rex, Steve's been there and done that too). One of the most heavily promoted sequences, involving toothy flying fish, features the film's least acceptable effects, but he use of Icelandic locations goes a long way to making the film palatable. So too does the added frisson of new-wave 3D, which gets that ViewMaster effect with compositions emphasizing foreground and background—wisps of mist in the frame's fore often help the illusion of depth (Brevig gives a cheeky cameo to a stereopticon). The technology has certainly improved since the era Meyers around a la with a protuberant tape measure.

If the impression ultimately is one of a collection of special-effects demo sequences spackled together with sentiment, there's a pleasing throwback vibe to the innocent '50s-ness of it all. The action and the moony emotion are best summed up by Fraser's character, who says, "That was a lot of male bonding packed into very little time." The adventure is partly Trevor's invitation to learn some grown-male responsbility (of Sean's visit, the boy's mother tells Trevor, "It'll be good for him...who knows? Maybe it'll be good for you too"). Of course, Journey is as much Sean's training for manhood (he even tries to call "dibs" on the fetching Hannah); consequently, the young lads in your family will thank you for taking them, but I'm not sure about anyone else.

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Aspect ratios: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 2

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 10/21/2008

Distributor: New Line Home Entertainment

From New Line comes a 3-D presentation of Journey to the Center of the Earth on Blu-ray and DVD. When I was watching the 3-D version in theatres, I figured that the home video release would be a big letdown, robbed of its gimmick, but Blu-ray viewers can choose between a sharp high-def 2-D transfer and a high-def anaglyph (red/blue) 3-D version of the film. Anyone who's ever donned a pair of red/blue 3-D glasses knows that high-def's razor-sharpness isn't to be expected from the 3D image here: more to the point is the 3-D effect itself. On Blu-ray, the 3-D transfer replicates all of the eyepopping theatrical 3-D effects in a downscaled version (don't hold your breath for full-color polarized 3-D on your home screen). The 2-D transfer delivers on the sharpness and detail to which we're accustomed in the high-def format, though the contrast is dialed up a bit too far, resulting in a subtly but unnaturally bright picture. Still, this is a spotless, sharp and detailed image that well serves the special-effects laden film. Appropriate to an effects-heavy movie, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix pumps a great deal of excitement into the experience; Blu-ray enthusiasts may balk at the lack of a high-res track here, but for those of us without super-ears, this track serves nicely.

I'm a bit surprised to have to report that the bonus features are a bit slim for this title, as I know more material was prepared (what happened to the ubiquitous behind-the-scenes reels shown in movie theatre pre-shows for months?). Anyway, what's here is entertaining enough. First up is an audio commentary with director Eric Brevig and star Brendan Fraser. The track reflects the dynamic obseved during the film's promotion: Brevig as a tireless plugger and Fraser showing up in a bit of an exhausted daze. As audio commentaries go, this one is decidedly non-essential listening for all but the most pumped-up of fans.

"A World Within Our World" (10:08), narrated by Anita Briem, is the best feature, giving an overview of relevant historic scientific theory regarding the "hollow earth" used as the basis for Jules Verne's novel. Kids may prefer the brief but entertaining "Being Josh" (6:00), depicting a shooting day in the life of young star Josh Hutcherson. "How to Make a Dinosaur Drool" (2:47) features Hutcherson, Brevig, and the men responsible for the goop in question, explaining how they made and employed T-rex spittle. Finally, the set includes access to a digital copy of the film, so kids on the run can continue to enjoy the fun.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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