*Journey to the Center of the Earth (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
For once, here is a movie that does not try to pretend to be anything more than it is: a journey to the center of the Earth in 3D. That's it. It has no pretensions to be anything other than a virtual theme park ride, with the actual theme park ride surely to come to family-fun venues across the country soon. And that'll be fine. Because as theme-park-ride movies go, this one's a hoot.
It helps to bring a goofy mood with you, because, well, for starters, this is a Brendan Fraser vehicle. (He produced the film, too.) Not only is he cute, he's got a lovely ludicrous charm to go with it. He's not at all embarrassed to give us a demonstration of, say, his tooth-brushing technique in three dimensions while we wait for the film to get to the center of the Earth, where there will be giant mushrooms, dinosaurs and other wonders more suited to blowing our little minds.
And the Fraser charm goes a long way toward keeping things interesting (your mileage may vary, of course) while the movie works its way toward Iceland, where the entrance to the center of the Earth will accidentally be discovered. This bit of the film is genuinely thrilling because the exteriors were actually shot in Iceland. Having visited that magnificently severe landscape long ago, seeing it in 3D on a big screen was almost like traveling there again. So you can tell yourself that Journey is a little bit educational, I suppose.
Then the movie the first feature directed by visual effects guy Eric Brevig gets down to business. It dumps Fraser's dorky college professor character Trevor Anderson into the interior of the planet, along with his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson), and their Icelandic guide Hannah Asgeirsson (Anita Briem). It's weird, but for all the outrageousness of this flick, which assumes that Jules Verne was writing nonfiction in his book of the same title, the only thing that rankles me about Journey is the stupidity of giving an Icelandic woman the name Asgeirsson it would be Asgeirsdottir.
But never mind. The totally CGI subterranean realm is a marvel in an amusement-park way with strange places that look fake yet photorealistic, like stepping inside a live-action cartoon. There are tons of cool monsters jumping off the screen to chomp at us (including the dinosaurs, of course), huge rivers of lava and more.
Fraser morphs from dorky college professor to adventure hero pretty quickly, which would be ridiculous in any other film, and there's a bit of moping about Trevor's missing brother (Sean's father), who appears to have become lost in this strange world years earlier. But even those hints at sentimentality never develop into anything that threatens the fun.
Sure, the film is nothing deep and it's nothing meaningful and it's bound to slip from your brain as rapidly as a roller coaster before the credits are over, but hold on tight ... because while it lasts, it's a wild ride.