Silly 'Mysterious Island' Worth the Journey
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
As someone whose taste in movies was at least partially formed through early-life enjoyment of the '50s and '60s fantasy films featuring stop-motion animation effects by Ray Harryhausen and others, I can't say I have any kind of generic objection to a picture like "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island." This ostensible sequel to 2008's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is also a gloss on a Jules Verne novel, the novel itself being a sequel of sorts to "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Now "Leagues" was made into a famous Disney film, but the original "Island," with its giant bees and other wonders, was a Harryhausen project and ... oh, you're maybe dozing already, aren't you? But my point is made: I do have a pretty good working knowledge of this sort of material.
However, this newfangled "Island" is different from the first picture in a substantial number of ways. First and most obviously, the ostensibly awe-inspiring special effects here aren't conjured via painstaking model work and stop-motion photography, but by computer animation, which is equally labor-intensive but trafficking in labor that isn't as interesting to think about. Hand in hand with the computer stuff is the 3-D. Given this picture is pitched pretty squarely at the tween-and-slightly-older demo, said 3-D is not the most nuanced cinema has to offer, nor should it be.
Also new and improved, theoretically, is the story line, which picks up where the 2008 set-in-the-modern-day picture let off, jettisoning male lead Brendan Fraser but keeping teen Josh Hutcherson and concocting an isle of legend via conflating Verne's novel with two other famous fictions about islands, Stevenson's "Treasure Island" and Swift's "Gulliver's Travels." Don't ask. Pitching in as adult lead in Fraser's place is Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Hutcherson's Sean's stepdad, against whom he has some kind of teen grudge. Even older adult Michael Caine plays Sean's cheery adventurer granddad, while Luis Guzman and Vanessa Hudgens first provide the ride, and are then along for it, as the island and its marvels are explored before they have to be deserted, 'cause the island's sinking.
This convoluted plot stuff is handled with brisk dispatch by director Brad Peyton, which is just as well, because the fun stuff here is what you'd expect: the principals fleeing from giant lizards, flying on the backs of bees away from birds that want to eat them, all that sort of thing. And that stuff is fun, and well done, even if you're an occasional nostalgia-indulger like me who prefers the stylings of the old school. And since this is a Walden Media production, there's some entirely unobjectionable thematic stuff about being there for your family, which is all quite salutary.
What there isn't, frankly, is much material for straight-ahead adults, except maybe for the shameless letches who don't mind admitting to finding the sight of a scantily clad Hudgens running away from imaginary creatures a diverting one. (And, no, at no point does Michael Caine utter, "She is only 23 years old! 23 years old!") I'm sure I know no such people. There's also the question of why Guzman appears to be working on a (very good, it happens) Tracy Morgan impersonation, but as questions go that's not particularly compelling. No, the best that moviegoers who don't much enjoy genial sci-fi/fantasy silliness can expect is a relatively inoffensive time, the weird bits involving The Rock doing comic relief notwithstanding: These routines involve his pecs, cherries and a ukulele; again, don't ask.
If you're also a Looney Tunes fan, there's a bonus in store for you with "Journey 2": Before the feature, a brand-new short, "Daffy Rhapsody," starring Elmer Fudd, and, yes, Daffy Duck, who performs a rather inspired song-spiel to Liszt's second "Hungarian Rhapsody" as Mr. F. tries to hunt him down. Here Daffy is in fact voiced by the late, great Mel Blanc himself. The cartoon is based around a comic song that Blanc recorded in the '50s but which never had accompanying animation attached to. Good stuff.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.