A double-feature at the megaplex this week of Journey to the Center of the Earth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army would broadly suggest that man should stay topside on his planet, and not go looking for portals to subterranean worlds. Or, at least: If you must go below, go heavy.
The reputed hero of Journey is Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser), a milquetoast of a geology professor. He gets saddled with his 13-year-old nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson), and before you can say "Why not?" the pair are off exploring Iceland, where -- coincidentally -- Sean's geologist dad disappeared 10 years ago. With a local mountain guide named Hannah (Anita Briem) and a well-marked copy of a speculative novel by Jules Verne (1894's Journey to the Center of the Earth, natch), the three set out for adventure.
Which they find in spades, falling almost immediately into a near-endless hole that deposits them ... at the center of the earth. (If you are planning a journey to the center of the earth, be sure to pack the Verne novel: It's a veritable Let's Go Guide to what you'll find.)
And so, in this brisk, 90-minute family adventure from Eric Brevig, our intrepid trio must discover unimaginable wonders (as well the obvious unlucky fate of earlier visitors), fend off weird beasties and -- this is the tricky part -- find a way back to the surface.
This is all fairly entertaining in a Saturday-matinee kinda way, if -- and this is a big IF -- if you're watching Brevig's film in the 3-D version. The story is wafer-thin and the plot offers few surprises: Its junky pleasures are all in the visuals. Journey was shot in a new digital 3-D process using polarized light, called "Real D 3-D," and it's pretty eye-popping. Even the most mundane scenes benefit from a discernible depth and, needless to say, the extra dimension makes all the difference in recreating the mysterious realm deep below the earth's surface.
No filmmaker working in 3-D seems able to resist gotcha gimmicks, and Brevig is no exception. The minute Sean picks up a yo-yo, get ready to duck. But a couple of other pop-off-the-screen moments are surprises, and truly one of the most icky and effective is when a giant bug puts its feelers right up in your face. Get off my popcorn! There's also a wild mine-car ride that was missing only a tilting theater seat, and I'd have sworn that I too was hurtling into the bowels of the earth.
Meanwhile, over at New Jersey's super-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense, the demon-busting gang from 2004's Hellboy are limbering up to take on a new threat from somewhere other than Earth as We Know It. These troublesome creatures come, if not from the center of the earth, then perhaps from somewhere nearby.
Guillermo del Toro, back in the Hellboy director's chair, wastes no time stoking his obsessions with creepy creatures living in shadowy proximity to us humans. A preamble set in the 1950s neatly lays out what's good, bad and grating about this sequel, adapted from Mike Mignola's comics.
In the sequence, presumably designed to help John Hurt pay the rent or else to ease the anxious fanboy from Part I (in which Hurt's character died) to Part II, the red child from elsewhere known as Hellboy is read a fairy tale by his adoptive father, played by Hurt. Watching a mouthy mini-Hellboy put me in mind of "Little Archie" comics, where those stories would inexplicably infantilize all the familiar grown characters.
The bedtime tale is your basic hullabaloo about a marginalized people -- in this case, elves -- who, to aid in their battles against humans, build an indefatigable army of mechanized golden warriors. The Golden Army can be summoned only when a certain three-piece crown is assembled. But a truce is won, the split crown held in safety among three elf royals, and all is good -- except that the elf prince Nuada stomps off angry at the deal, vowing that one day, he'll get his.
As Hurt narrates, del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) indulges in fantastic, digitally animated set pieces that illustrate the tale, and, as in his best work, there's something deliciously off-kilter about it. The grand battles of the elf saga appear to be acted out by hundreds of wooden, articulated artists' models.
Hellboy II continues in this vein, a mix of deliriously kooky creatures and special effects, a fairly rote plot about the evil Prince Nuada taking over the earth and re-assembling the Golden Army, and winking bits that feel heavily troweled on for del Toro's army of comics fans.
It's a big crashing story, with lots of rizz-razz (including an "elf market" scene that is the Star Wars cantina on steroids), but not much focus. Muddled up in it all is some domestic strife between Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his lady love (Selma Blair); a love story for Hellboy's colleague, the fish-dude named Abe Sapien (Doug Jones); a cool-looking but awkward eco-moment with a really big killer plant; and a fearsome metal army that only Hellboy can take down (no big surprise).
If you liked Hellboy, then Hellboy II is bigger, faster and shinier, and probably a fun night out. But if you're looking for that elusive cohesion of action, good story, special effects, crazy creatures and laughs, Hellboy II is often a choppy affair. In English, and some elf language, with subtitles.