It’s tough to hate a movie that tries so hard not to take itself seriously, but Journey 2: The Mysterious Island sure makes us come close. This sequel to 2008’s Brendan Fraser–starring Jules Verne palimpsest Journey to the Center of the Earth offers up a predictably de-boned, family-friendly fantasy adventure (this time inspired by Verne’s novel The Mysterious Island, which was actually more of a sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but whatever) but gussies it up with occasionally endearing bits of throwaway humor. The results are sometimes fun, though never enough to mask the movie’s breathtaking lack of imagination.
The strangest gag in the entire thing, of course, is that Fraser’s character is nowhere to be found — he’s been replaced by The Rock, now playing stepdad to intrepid teenage “Verne-ian” Sean Anderson (The Kids Are All Right’s Josh Hutcherson, the only lead returning from the original film). Previous movies have joked with the idea of this outlandish-looking muscleman trying to fit into a domestic setting; here, it’s taken for granted. When The Rock knocks politely on his surly stepson’s door, only to be refused admittance, we half-expect him to tear the door down. But no, he’s a dutiful family man — so dutiful, in fact, that he essentially chaperones the boy on a journey to Palau after the two decode a mysterious radio transmission that Sean is convinced came from his lost explorer grandfather Alexander (Michael Caine, presumably behind on some alimony payments). Even after they crash-land on the supposedly fictional island, The Rock’s main purpose seems to be to just lurk around and make sure the boy doesn’t do anything stupid. They might as well be at the mall.
Actually, the whole movie might as well be taking place at the mall. How ironic is it that the 1961 Mysterious Island, with its painstakingly animated stop-motion monsters (courtesy of the great Ray Harryhausen), did so much more with the possibilities of special effects than this new one, with all that powerful CGI at its disposal. Oh, there are some sights: If you ever wanted to see Michael Caine ride a giant bee, now’s your chance. But more often than not, we’re marveling not at the dazzling imagery on display but at the wasted opportunities. When our heroes see a giant spider, for example, they just note it and move on; never have I felt so deprived of an obligatory giant-spider chase scene.
The film seems more interested in the comic back-and-forth between its characters, and here its report card is mixed. Hutcherson and The Rock do a decent job circling around each other — the boy is insistent, the wrestler stoic (even when he’s showing off his pecs or bragging about the fact that he doesn’t need sunblock). Their easygoing banter works; that almost makes up for the painful ribbing between Caine and The Rock, which feels so forced and unnatural you start to look for wide shots of the two, just to make sure the actors were in the same location together. And let’s not even get started on the facial muggings of poor Luis Guzman, playing a native pilot who, along with fetching daughter Vanessa Hudgens, winds up accompanying our heroes on their journey.
But the movie does have its moments. It tosses in completely devil-may-care bits of humor here and there (a completely random joke about calligraphy paper, a devious sight gag involving the size of some sharks, etc.) almost as if to hint at us that the filmmakers’ minds are elsewhere. That may free us to let our thoughts drift as well — though hopefully not to the honest money we just spent watching this glorified cable fodder.