In its own sweetly bombastic way, the 2008 remake of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" did the job, the job being a 21st-century 3-D bash starring Brendan Fraser — an actor who gives his all to the green screen, every time — and loosely based on the 19th-century Jules Verne adventure, a natural for the movies. Its script proceeded from the idea that Verne, science fiction visionary, was in reality writing about real places and genuine fantastic phenomena only disguised as fiction.
Now comes the Fraserless sequel,"Journey 2: The Mysterious Island."And it's only disguised as fun.
Take away the 3-D shots of berries bouncing off Dwayne Johnson's vibrating pecs, and you have a pretty scrawny experience. Director Brad Peyton takes the reins for "Journey 2"; previously he gave us "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," one of the tougher sits of recent epochs.
The visual quality of "Journey 2" is such that while Peyton and company filmed on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, the results resemble "H.R. Pufnstuf" or the AMC theater chain's concessions promo, the one where placid teenagers hoisting 188-ounce cups of Coke are transported to a world akin to "Avatar."
Carrying over from the '08 film, a newly beefed-up Josh Hutcherson returns as Sean, now 17 and more sullen than ever. He has survived his journey to the center of the earth, but now his uncle, the Fraser character, is out of the picture. Sean's ex-Navy stepfather (Johnson) hasn't yet breached the boy's defense mechanisms.
Then comes a cryptogram from Sean's geographically distant grandfather (Michael Caine, decked out like a veteran member of the Indiana Jones fan club) containing news that Verne's mysterious island was no imaginative figment. Sean and stepfather Hank take off to the South Pacific to investigate and hook up with an islander (Luis Guzman) with a helicopter, a teenage daughter with college aspirations (Vanessa Hudgens) and a penchant for the broadest, most infantile brand of mugging. Guzman's usually a lot better than this, but then, so is everybody in "Journey 2."
The mysterious island's attractions include miniature elephants and giant ants, but the movie is weirdly uninterested in its own critter potential beyond the giant flying bees. These can be ridden like big, fuzzy, flying horses, but the magic isn't there. The bees won't give stop-motion effects master Ray Harryhausen, who created the giant crab and other beasties for the 1961 "Mysterious Island," anything to worry about.
Hutcherson spits his lines out as quickly as possible, which you appreciate, because the way the likable Johnson wrestles with his lines ("It looks like the liquefaction has tripled overnight!") you think, well, it's a living. Capt. Nemo's submarine makes an appearance, as does the lost continent of Atlantis, and the script by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn sets up a promising mashup of literary antecedents ("Gulliver's Travels" and "Treasure Island" to go with the Verne stuff). But the promise goes unfulfilled, and the film is preceded by an equally disappointing 3-D Daffy Duck/Elmer Fudd cartoon "Daffy's Rhapsody," a grating, pushy comedown from the Olympian heights of "Duck Amuck" or the gorgeous and eternal "What's Opera, Doc?"
'Journey 2: The Mysterious Island' -- 1 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for some adventure action and brief, mild language)
Running time: 1:34