While proof that low expectations are usually a good thing, this sequel to the disappointing 2008 3D adventure film Journey to the Center of the Earth certainly sets off alarm bells from the outset, what with so many of the original cast not electing to return, most prominently star Brendan Fraser. That the rubber-faced funnyman is replaced with the tougher, more charismatic Dwayne Johnson for this second go-around is all too apt, because Journey 2: The Mysterious Island is an altogether leaner, barmier, and funnier outing, pleasantly enjoyable for kids and moderately entertaining for the parents they drag along.
Smartly bounding along at a breathless pace, Journey 2 takes not a second to explain why Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) isn’t adventuring with his uncle this time around, instead briskly setting up an awkward family dynamic in which his mother, Liz (now played by Kristin Davis) is married to a new partner, Hank (Johnson). Keen to play disciplinarian while also trying to connect with his new step-son, Hank decides to help Sean when he intercepts a transmission about an island which he believes his grandfather, Alexander (Michael Caine), has discovered. Together with pilot Gabato (Luis Guzmán) and his daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), they venture to the uncharted island, which they quickly realise is sinking. With the help of Alexander, they must escape the island before it is too late.
It is easy to admire this film’s goofy charm, its odd lack of desperation to seek your approval, to simply sling as much lunacy at the screen as possible and hope that some of it sticks. Cutting through exposition with spare economy, director Brad Peyton – who previously directed the torturous Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore – eschews verbose dialogues in favour of colourful locales, vaguely witty back-and-forth banter, and preposterous 3D set-pieces, all played with giddy enthusiasm by Michael Caine and Dwayne Johnson especially. That anyone would think to cast the two together, let alone have the former ride a giant bumble bee and the latter have berries bounced off of his Herculean pecs, is an unhinged sort of genius all in itself.
Many films of this type incredulously lose sight of the fun factor and quickly de-evolve into languid dialogue-based bores or focus on shoe-horned family dynamics, but unexpectedly, this is a film that gets the balance pretty much spot-on. The set-pieces come thick and fast, including but not limited to fleeing from a giant lizard’s nest, the aforementioned bumble bee ride away from savage birds, and, no joke, the harpooning of an electric eel in order to make it jump-start the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s ship from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Oh, and don’t forget a priceless scene in which Johnson plays a ukulele while singing “What a Wonderful World.” Incredibly, he’s not half bad.
While delivering the action thrills for a film of this type is like bringing the bread and butter home, the film, like the first, is also keen to engage with the literary aspects of the story, and does so with a fair degree of intelligence, with the map to the mysterious island having been constructed out of the maps from novels Treasure Island, Gulliver’s Travels and Verne’s own 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Touches like this demonstrate a welcome fanfare for this sort of adventure, and along with the enthusiastic work by the cast, allows it to truly show through in the final product.
Still, most surprising of all is that the characters are not merely props with which to thrust CGI; instead of focusing on the burgeoning romance between Hutcherson and Hudgens’ characters, it is the familial dynamic – between step-father and step-son – which is dealt the most heft, and thanks to solid characterisation, it comes off as sweet and heartfelt rather than a mechanically-constructed interlude between all the mayhem.
It’s rare that sequels are better than the originals, but when the original wasn’t really very good, the rule book sort of goes out the window. With this cast, a fine balance appears to have been struck between styles of comedy and physicality; that they all seem as up for the ride as us certainly helps, and one just hopes they’re all up for the inevitable Journey 3. The canny casting of Caine and Johnson makes this sweet-natured romp a surprising amount of fun.
Journey 2 is out now in the UK but not in the U.S. until February 10th.
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