Like its predecessor, Journey to the Center of the Earth, this is a well-paced and highly entertaining family film made with good humor, panache, and imagination. Josh Hutcherson returns as Sean Anderson, a teenager whose last expedition was in search of his father. Refreshingly, it does not take itself seriously. Even more refreshingly, it takes the idea of adventure seriously, with a welcome reminder that the actual thrill of exploring beats even the most entertaining movie or game.
Sean receives an encrypted radio signal and suspects it may be from his grandfather, Alexander, an explorer. Sean’s stepfather Hank (Duane “The Rock” Johnson) is a Navy veteran who once one a prize for code-breaking. Sean does not want to have anything to do with Hank, but cannot resist letting him help solve the code. When it appears to be coming from Sean’s grandfather, with a clue that leads them to more clues in classic stories of island adventure by Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Jonathan Swift, Sean is determined to find it. Hank persuades Sean’s mother (Kristen Davis), to let them try because it is the first real opportunity he has had to get close to his stepson.
They fly to Palau, where the only person crazy and desperate enough to try to take them to an uncharted and possibly imaginary island in the middle of the most dangerous storms on the ocean is Gabato (Luis Guzman, providing awkward comic relief). Sean and Hank get into Gabato’s rattletrap of a plane with Gabato’s beautiful daughter Kailani (“High School Musical’s” Vanessa Hudgens) as a navigator. Like the Millennium Falcon being sucked into the Death Star by the tractor beam, Gabato’s plane is pulled onto the island by the swirl of the storm for a crash landing that shatters it to shards.
Sean is thrilled to find his grandfather (a game and very dapper Michael Caine) and the group is enchanted by the lush beauty of the tropical island and by its big/small reversals. Animals that are big in the rest of the world are small, and animals that are small are big. So the elephants are the size of border collies and the lizards are the size of dinosaurs. Alexander has created a “Swiss Family Robinson”-style treehouse and has discovered the ruins of an ancient city. But when Hank discovers that the island is sinking and will be submerged in a few days, they have to find a way to get back home. They set off for the coast. Alexander at first is hostile to Hank but, like Sean, learns to appreciate him after he shows how skillful and dependable he is — and after he pulls out a uke and sings a very respectable and funny version of “Wonderful World.”
Director Brad Peyton keeps the characters and the plot moving briskly and manages to bring in some nice moments as Alexander, Hank, and Gabato demonstrate different styles of fatherhood. Kailani reminds Sean that it may be bad when parents embarrass you but it is worse when they don’t even try to provide support and guidance. The humor is silly, but reassuring, not condescending to the young audience. It balances the scenes of peril as the group tries to find an escape. However, Gabato is so over-the-top he is likely to grate on anyone over age 10. It palpably conveys the fun of exploration and discovery and the pleasures of being part of a team. The production design by Bill Boes is spectacular, especially Alexander’s wittily imagined house, the ancient city, and the 140-year-old submarine that starts up like Woody Allen’s VW Bug in “Sleeper” after a unique jump start. It perfectly matches the fantasy-adventure-comedy tone of the story, where you can hold a a baby elephant in your arms and fly on the back of a giant bee. “Are you ready for an adventure?” characters ask more than once. This movie will have you ready to say, “Yes.”
As an added treat, there’s an “What’s Opera, Doc”-ish 3D Daffy Duck cartoon before the film, with audio from the original Daffy and Elmer voice talent, Mel Blanc.
Parents should know that this film has characters in peril, minor injuries, some icky and scary-looking animals with big teeth, some jump-out-at-you surprises, some potty and briefly crude humor, and brief schoolyard language.
Family discussion: How many different styles of parenting were portrayed in this movie? Which do you think is best? What adventure would you like to go on?
If you like this, try: “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and books by Jules Verne