More of a mess than a mystery
By John DeFore
Friday, Feb. 10, 2012
Managing to make classic 19th-century adventure yarns feel as wondrous and exotic as a Hallmark Channel special, "Journey 2: The Mysterious Island" sincerely tries to pay homage to the likes of Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson but is too contaminated by today's tame sensibilities to make it fly.
The sequel to 2008's "Journey to the Center of the Earth" suffers, first, from an exposition that is cloddish even by the standards of multiplex kid stuff. Cramming a tangled mess of motivations into a few minutes, it barely attempts to make us believe that Hank (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) would take his hateful stepson, Sean (Josh Hutcherson), on a spur-of-the-moment trip to the South Pacific just because a mysterious radio transmission has hinted that Verne's "Mysterious Island" actually exists and Sean's grandpa (Michael Caine) is adventuring there.
Faster than you can say "can we license this for a Happy Meal?," the two have arrived in Palau and hired sketchy helicopter pilot Gabato (Luis Guzman) to take them to the island's coordinates. Gabato comes with teenage daughter Kailani - cue the slow-mo removal of sunglasses to indicate Sean's PG-rated leering. Kailani, played by Vanessa Hudgens of the "High School Musical" films, almost benefits from the lack of interest screenwriters Brian and Mark Gunn show in her: While the Gunns plant juvenile witticisms in her co-stars' mouths and force them to move the plot along with factual tidbits they have no way of knowing ("the sea level's risen 100 feet in the last 24 hours"), Hudgens can just pretend she's a normal teen shipwrecked on this strange island.
Strange island, indeed. The first thing we learn about the place is that proportions are inverted: Life forms that are giant in our world are tiny in this one, and vice versa. But the rule applies only when the filmmakers are thinking about it. Fireflies are still tiny here; trees are still big - and if our heroes wrangle giant bumblebees to fly them around, those bees will be much smaller than the birds who attack them, regardless of logic that would have made the birds minor pests.
The movie's flexibility with its own rules would be less noticeable if it were busy thrilling us. But the action here consists exclusively of barely reheated sequences from better films, and the dialogue's allusions to "Raiders of the Lost Ark" serve only to remind us what we're missing and to remind us indirectly that, where that film turned little-known character actors into near-icons, this one takes the reliably great Luis Guzman and forces him to cower and whine as if he were auditioning for the "Three Stooges" remake. (Caine, in his own way, fares no better.)
While Johnson displays little of the self-aware humor that has sometimes elevated his lowbrow outings, he does remain guilelessly committed to this sinking ship, earnestly selling its absent-father themes and flexing his pecs while waiting for director Brad Peyton to figure out what he's doing. Presumably, those pecs are still flexing.