A majestic mountain of muscles, Dwayne Johnson is fully capable of using his pectorals to catapult small objects hither and yon, a skill he demonstrates with berries in the blithely idiotic family movie Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. But the muscles that matter most to Johnson, the actor, as opposed to the former pro wrestler, are the zygomaticus major, which control the smile. They are as buff and ready for action as his chest and arms, an emblem of easy charm.
He uses the quick smile on his future stepson, Sean (Josh Hutcherson, returning to this Jules Verne-goes-21st-century franchise, which began with 2008’s Journey to the Center of the Earth) but to no avail. The boy dislikes Hank even though he seems to make mom (Kirstin Davis) happy and is kind and decent. The movie’s largest emotional concern is creating a bond between the recalcitrant, Verne-obsessed teen and the man obsessed with being a good father figure to Sean. Hank’s motivation comes from his own bad dad experience; his father “left when I was eight and I haven’t seen him since.”
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Don’t worry; their emotional journey is a piece of cake, as is every easily earned triumph in this lightweight adventure tale. The story opens with Sean puzzling over a coded radio signal he believes is a message from his missing grandfather. (The family has a tendency to wander; Dad was missing in the first Journey, which starred another muscle man, Brendan Fraser.) Hank, who has a Navy background, cracks the code far faster than most parents decipher the grading system on an elementary school report card. The radio communiqué contains an announcement to quicken the heart of any Vernian; the writer’s allegedly fictional island from his 1874 novel The Mysterious Island is in fact real and located in the South Pacific. Come visit!
If ill-mannered Sean were my future stepson I doubt very much I’d want to take him halfway across the world, and particularly not to an uncharted isle where we could potentially get stuck together for all time, but that’s just what Hank does. Mom stays behind (Davis has maybe four minutes of screen time, all of it smiling benevolently), but two other travelers join them, a hapless helicopter pilot (Luiz Guzman) and his daughter (Vanessa Hudgens). Another quibble – if I’d traveled all that way to see a hidden tropical treasure, where butterflies are the size of condors and elephants the size of cocker spaniels, I’d plan to linger and smell the hibiscus or at least let red-faced, immature Grandpa (Michael Caine) cook me a nice plate of scrambled lizard eggs. But not Hank; he’d like to keep the visit as short as a pit stop on the New Jersey Turnpike.
Danger in the form of giant lizards and bad jokes await them, as well as a clumsy mishmash of classic literature references – not just Verne – meant to make the audience feel erudite while explaining the complexities of the island. It’s Jonathan Swift’s Lilliput or Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Atlantis, or maybe all three at once. (I was disappointed that Sean, Hank and their companions — who provide comic and comely relief — didn’t spend a few nights at CliffsNotes Cottage.) All this is just an excuse for action sequences broadly influenced by the Indiana Jones and Pirates of the Caribbean movies but nowhere near as technologically lively, even in 3-D. The crumbling caverns and skeletons all look as fake as the drooling volcano towering over the center of the island.
But as cartoonish as those giant lizards, spiders and hungry, angry birds appear, parents are advised to take that PG rating seriously. A child near me at an advance screening hid his face in his chair during every chase sequence and bellowed “this is not a movie to take kids to!” (Okay, he was sitting right next to me. And on our car ride home, he voiced the opinion that PG should be for kids 9 and up.) Certainly it’s not for very small kids. It’s silly enough that young teens are unlikely to be drawn to it unless they’ve got a thing for Hudgens or want to take an early peek at Hutcherson, who will soon be seen as Peeta in The Hunger Games. He was great as a sulky brat in The Kids Are All Right but in Journey 2 he comes across as wooden, dull and though not yet 20, too old for roles like these. So an awful lot is riding on Johnson’s zygomaticus major. They’re powerful, but they can’t work miracles.
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