(by Dustin Putman
If taken seriously, evidence that "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" was headed for probable disaster arose the moment Brendan Fraser, star of 2008's gimmicky 3-D adventure "Journey to the Center of the Earth," opted not to return for its sequel. If Fraser has ever willingly turned down a film project before (particularly in the wake of 2010's assault against humanity "Furry Vengeance"), one can only shudder to imagine what it might have been. With co-star Josh Hutcherson (2010's "The Kids Are All Right") taking the lead, this loose continuation goes so far as to not even mention Fraser's scientist/adventurer character (a case of negligent writing that doesn't respect its audience), but otherwise follows the same basic modus operandi. Although they are very similar, however, new director Brad Peyton (2010's "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore"), taking over for Eric Brevig, has a handier reign over the knowingly far-fetched material and his cast shares a bit more chemistry. It's not quite enough to recommend for anyone other than six- to ten-year-olds, but Fraser's lack of participation has proven to be more an anomaly than a harbinger of doom. Article continues below
Four years since he and his uncle survived a fantastical trip to the center of the earth by way of a very deep Icelandic cave, Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) is now a rebellious 17-year-old not getting along with new stepfather Hank (Dwayne Johnson) and still very much intrigued by the cult realm of Jules Verne followers (called "Vernians," natch). A radio signal has just been sent out carrying with it a message about another of Verne's not-so-fictional novels "The Mysterious Island." As it turns out, Verne's story was about the same location as Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," and Sean is convinced that said hidden island, off the coast of Palau, is where his grandfather Alexander (Michael Caine) went missing two years before. In an effort to connect with Sean, Hank springs for two plane tickets, not really understanding just how out-there their trip is about to get.
With the exception of some newspaper clippings recalling the series' past happenings, the only distinct connection between "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is the character of Sean Anderson. Otherwise, this is an entirely new adventure, with Sean's mother, played by Jane Wheeler in the earlier picture, having transformed over the intervening years into Kristin Davis. Screenwriters Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn waste no time in getting the story underway, with Sean and Hank hiring helicopter tour guide Gabato (Luis Guzman) and his beautiful teenage daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens) to fly them to the coordinates of where the island is supposed to be located. In doing so, the four of them get swept into the vortex of a cyclone and wake to find themselves in a place where the laws of nature are reversed and quite possibly anything can happen. Elephants are the size of puppies, lizards are as big and ferocious as carnivorous T-rexes, the Lost City of Atlantis is found anew, and, alas, the land mass' tectonic plates are causing the island to gradually sink. As Sean and Hank bond, so, too, do Sean and Kailani, Kailani and her father, and Sean and his located pappy Alexander. Now they must find the submarine entitled the Nautilus if they hope to escape in one piece.
"Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" is well-paced, but lacking in much plot or drive once the characters arrive at the enigmatic title setting. Characters literally walk on the egg shells of unhatched reptiles, they ride on the backs of bees, and Sean gets questionable love advice when Hank shares with him "the pec pop of love," leading to images that may haunt me all year. That this island has existed for thousands of years and is conveniently about to sink, or that the buttons inside the ancient Nautilus have plastic coverings on them, are just a few of the silly stretches in logic one must overlook. Well enough, but that doesn't take away the wince-inducing dialogue exchanges and lame comedic fodder some strong actors are forced to utter throughout.
Josh Hutcherson has been one of the most impressive young talents ever since 2005's transcendent "Little Manhattan," and it's been a pleasure to watch him grow and mature. He more than holds this film together, supported by a likable Dwayne Johnson (2010's "The Tooth Fairy") as Hank. Johnson isn't the best judge of scripts—he keeps selling himself short by choosing throwaway family and action roles—but he can be stirringly charismatic when the material allows him to be; a scene where he strums a ukulele and sings a lovely, low-key cover of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World" around a campfire is easily the film's best. Luis Guzman (2011's "Arthur"), given a sturdier part than he's accustomed to, has his amusing moments as pilot Gabato, and Vanessa Hudgens reclaims the same relaxed naturalism she exhibited in 2009's "Bandslam" following her indistinct work in 2011's "Beastly." As for Michael Caine (2010's "Inception"), he needn't have bothered; his screen time is as negligible as his apparent commitment to the role of Alexander.
There is something to be said about movies that encourage reading to the young and impressionable, any of whom would be better off staying home and opening a book rather than seeing "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island." It's not an offensively bad way to spend an hour and a half, and director Brad Peyton is exceedingly aware that he's not making an awards contender, but the narrative is nonetheless a slapdash affair as it becomes a rehash of any number of superior films, from 1985's "The Goonies," to 1989's "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," to 2005's "King Kong." At this point, the tired 3-D selling point doesn't cut it, either; it simply doesn't wow on any level and is more hindrance than asset. With a set-up for an intriguing possible second sequel tacked to the end, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" stands as a mild improvement over the already out-dated original—special effects, for example, are much better, more defined and less hazy—even as it still doesn't quite warrant a recommendation. Hopefully, Sean's third adventure will be the charm.