The new "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" is one of those movies where I wish I was a 10-year-old boy watching it. That's because this is really the ultimate 10-year-old boy's adventure. Now, I can't complain too much. Because when I was 10, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" came out. And I left the theater in my little Roger Ebert sweater vest and tweed jacket opining, "THAT was the ultimate 10-year-old boy's adventure!"
There's nothing wrong with a movie being targeted at a specific demographic and absolutely hitting that bulls-eye. Of course, the great ones like "Raiders" appeal to many ages. But the first rule is to appeal to your core. I sat surrounded at my recent preview screening by kids -- mostly boys, but some girls -- aged about 7 to 14, watching with their moms, dads, and grandparents. And the popcorn chomping was almost deafening. They were into this! And it wasn't hard to see why. The film has a basic gee-whiz appeal that the old "Witch Mountain" flicks had back in the 1970s. It's good fun.
It's a sequel of sorts to 2008's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." Josh Hutcherson returns as Sean, the boy from the first flick whose dad perished on an expedition trying to find the center of the Earth that author Jules Verne wrote about where dinosaurs still roamed and other spectacle awaited. In the years since, Sean has grown into a headstrong, reckless teenager who is rude and defiant to his mother and her boyfriend, Hank (Dwayne "Formerly the Rock" Johnson). As the film opens, Sean believes he has received an encoded radio transmission from his eccentric grandfather Alexander (Michael Caine) that contains the coordinates to Verne's fabled Mysterious Island.
Hank, eager to connect with the boy, convinces Sean's mother to let the two of them travel to Palau and venture out to those coordinates where there will be no island and Sean will see his granddad for the tall tale-teller that he is. Chartering a helicopter from the slow-witted Gabato (Luis Guzman) and his fetching daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), the foursome fly into the eye of a rapidly developing hurricane; get put through Mother Nature's spin cycle; and crash onto the island.
I really liked four things about this movie. One, being a parent myself as well as an intrepid content reviewer, I appreciated that there was no profanity in the film. You might hear profanity in the audience. The flick does have its share of "Holy $%&*!" moments. I mean, if I were being chased by a lizard the size of a T-Rex, I'd be screaming every swear word in the book. But all concerned in the cast keep this one clean.
Two, I've always been more a fan of adventure movies a la Indiana Jones and Alan Quartermain than straight-out action flicks. At a couple of points in "Journey 2," one of the characters asks excitedly "Who's up for an adventure?!" and the gleam in everyone's eyes is genuine.
Three, I actually really appreciated that the main characters were written smart. While Sean has become disrespectful and bratty in the years since his last great adventure, the kid is not a slacker. He's actually pretty intelligent and likes to show off his smarts with regards to his knowledge of literature, science, geography, and so forth. Similarly, Hank is very sharp throughout. He's kind of one of those Swiss-army-knife characters who can be all things at all turns of the script. He's a former Navy officer adept at both breaking codes and deep-sea diving, and wouldn't ya know it?! Both skills come in handy on the island. He also heads a construction business, and his knowledge of ground settling and other building elements also factors into the story at a crucial moment.
And, four, I liked that screenwriters Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn didn't manufacture any villains or bad guys for the main characters to thwart. The film is structured more like a sci-fi version of "Survivor" with various physical challenges and puzzles to solve. The story is simple. The characters search for the island. The characters get stranded on the island. The characters have to get off the island before it sinks into the sea. To overcome each obstacle, they not only have to be physically in shape, they also have to use their smarts and draw on clues inside of Verne's "The Mysterious Island" as well as Jonathan Swift's "Gulliver's Travels" and Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."
On the downside, the script really could have been a little sharper. Johnson is such a charming giant at this point in his movie career that I'd really like to see what he could do with good writing. Also, the film is being marketed quite heavily on Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, and some of the action sequences in this are simply too intense for kids who scare easily or who are prone to nightmares. On the island, what is big in the real world is small and what is small is big. So elephants are the size of puppy dogs, but bees are the size of horses. The aforementioned lizard attack is almost as intense as the T-Rex attack in the original "Jurassic Park." And a climactic electric eel attack is similarly scary, especially in 3-D where the eel hisses and seemingly snap-bites right off the screen and into your face.
But what do I know? They melted Nazis at the end of "Raiders," and that sequence didn't scar me. Right? At its heart, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" aims for fun, old-fashioned thrills and delivers for the most part. It's a fun ride. And, yes, it sets up a sequel rather cleverly. If you know your Verne, you can suspect that the next installment will be shooting for the stars. My rating for the current adventure is 6 out of 10. (T. Durgin)