A scientist and his nephew travel to Iceland in order to explore some unusual seismic activity, and instead stumble into the adventure of a lifetime in this family-friendly summer blockbuster that has the distinction of being the first full-length live-action feature shot in digital 3-D. The result is a harmless tale of family bonding that isn't too intense for the youngsters, but still feels rather generic, despite a few memorable action set pieces and some truly dazzling 3-D effects. Compare it to something like vintage Spielberg and you're bound to be disappointed, but take it as a typical summer blockbuster with the added benefit of being presented in 3-D, and odds are good that the kids will be happy and you'll at least walk out of the theater feeling as if you've gotten your money's worth.
Things are a bit slow to start, as we learn that scientist Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) has been carrying the torch of his missing brother's research ever since his brainy sibling disappeared on an Icelandic exhibition several years prior, and that his lab is about to close down due to lack of funds. When his teenage nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson), arrives for a scheduled visit bearing a box of his father's old belongings, Trevor discovers a copy of his brother's favorite book -- Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth -- with some most unusual notes scribbled in the margins. Those notes may finally verify the controversial theories that made Trevor's brother the laughing stock of the entire scientific community, and in no time, the eager scientist and his nephew are on a plane bound for Iceland. From that point on, the adventure begins to quickly pick up steam.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is a special-effects-heavy adventure film for the entire family, and as such it succeeds rather admirably; the action never gets so intense as to be genuinely frightening, potentially touchy themes of death and familial loss are handled with restrained honesty, and Fraser's portrayal of a heroic scientist is endearing in its cartoonish innocence. Screenwriters Michael D. Weiss, Mark Levin, and Jennifer Flackett display a skillful knack for undercutting moments of high tension with playful humor, their deft handling of a hair-raising repelling scene and a treacherous trek across some magnetic rocks serving as two prime examples of how to keep viewers in suspense without putting them through too much punishment. Crafting a rousing adventure film that's entertaining for the little ones while staying safely in PG territory is no easy endeavor, and while the filmmakers behind Journey to the Center of the Earth walk this precarious tightrope with relative confidence, such compromises don't go entirely unnoticed in action scenes that may have otherwise had much more bite.
Behind the camera, special-effects artist-turned-director Eric Brevig proves himself a competent first-time feature filmmaker by handling such action sequences as a turbulent mine ride and a toothy T. rex encounter with energy and a fair sense of visual flair. Of course, some of this flair will no doubt be diminished when the film is viewed in standard "flat" format -- as opposed to experiencing it in a theatrical setting in dynamic RealD 3-D -- but for parents in search of a summer blockbuster that isn't too intense for the kiddies and doesn't drag on too long for the adults, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a consistently entertaining adventure romp once the action gets flowing...and who knows, it might even encourage that little one to lay down the PSP and crack open a book for once as well.