Journey to the Center of the Earth stars Brendan Fraser as a geologist — and, yet, really, it stars Brendan Fraser as Brendan Fraser. Fraser, at some point in his career, became the go-to-guy for family-friendly adventure, and it seems to have stuck, making Fraser’s resume a list of films loaded with broad comedy, wisecracks in the face of special-effects danger and the sort of action that the MPAA cautions parents as containing, in a phrase that always brings a smile to my face, "mild peril." Journey to the Center of the Earth is just the most recent installment in Fraser’s tastefully lame filmography, and yet, for what it is, it’s quite good — a rousing family adventure with good effects, watchable performers and plenty of excitement without any real violence.
Fraser’s Professor Trevor Anderson is working on the margins of his field, but one of his old research pods starts picking up some intriguing data in Iceland, just as his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson), the son of his deceased fellow-scientist brother Max, has come for a visit. Journey to the Center of the Earth is the kind of film where the act of bringing your teen nephew on a scientific expedition is perfectly reasonable, so Trevor and Sean head off to Iceland to pick up the probe, hiring mountain guide Hannah Asgeirsson (Anita Briem) to get them there. A storm traps them in a cave; the cave’s floor gives way; soon our threesome are in a bizarre underworld filled with prehistoric creatures and computer-generated adventures, realizing that Max’s love for Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Center of the Earth was not simply a matter of him enjoying Victorian literature.
Journey to the Center of the Earth was released in 3-D, but the DVD does include a 2-D version, and that version works quite well even without the digitally-aided ooooh and ahhhh factor that 3-D adds. The monsters and dangers of the hidden subterranean world are still spooky when they aren’t flying off the screen right into your face; the beauties and wonders of the place are still gorgeous even when they aren’t laid out before you like a science fair diorama. Director Eric Brevig came from special effects — he’s worked for directors like Michael Bay on films like The Island, and Pearl Harbor, M. Night Shyamalan (for Signs and The Village) and Barry Sonnenfeld (on Men in Black and Wild Wild West). But Brevig knows that he has to care about people in this film, not just pixels, and he keeps the tone just right as the characters learn, share and feel along the way, in between the attacking carnivorous plants and rampaging prehistoric reptiles.
Which is nice, but the better thing about Journey to the Center of the Earth is how it gives us plenty of spectacle and action as well, with the added pleasure of easy-to-watch actors in the lead roles. When Fraser stands taking everything in saying "Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the center of the Earth …", he’s a little hammy and a little humbled — in other words, hitting a tone that’s exactly right for this sort of film. Hutcherson hits the sweet spot for his character as well; Sean is plucky but never bratty, mocking Trevor when the film could use the lift and listening when the film puts the group in peril. Briem also gets a nice part to play — competent but never over-confident, tough and determined but still warm and graceful.
The DVD includes several extras — commentary from Brevig and Fraser, a guide to various crackpot hollow-Earth theories throughout history, a filmed example of a day on set for Hutchinson and some making-of material and games for the kids. Nothing in Journey to the Center of the Earth is brilliant, but considering how many family adventure films are flat-out bad, bland and boring, a family film as well-made as Journey to the Center of the Earth is a journey you and your kids will find well worth taking.