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Originally published Thursday, July 10, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Journey to the Center of the Earth": Did we have to go back?

Movie review: "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is a largely forgettable update of the Jules Verne story, with loads of imagination and 3-D excitement but no personality.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Journey to the Center of the Earth," with Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, Anita Briem. Directed by Eric Brevig, from a screenplay by Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin, based on the novel by Jules Verne. 93 minutes. Rated PG for intense adventure action and some scary moments. Several theaters.

For most of this reviewer's life, the title "Journey to the Center of the Earth" has conjured fond childhood memories of a handsome 1959 science-fiction feature about a descent to our planet's core via an Icelandic volcano.

The engrossing film's classy story (adapted from the Jules Verne novel by Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, co-authors of Ernst Lubitsch's "Ninotchka") also boasted Bernard Herrmann's typically taut and spooky score, glossy art direction, thrilling visual effects and a fun cast (James Mason, Arlene Dahl and Pat Boone).

Nothing about the new, sort-of update of "Journey" threatens to eclipse happy memories of that earlier film. Even with its claim to be the first movie entirely shot in a digital 3-D process, and with a number of imaginative, suspenseful scenes that will translate well into video-game fodder, the 2008 "Journey" is finally a personality-free, one-thing-after-another middling adventure.

Well, it does have something the other movie doesn't have: a lot of annoying yelling ("Whoah-ahh-oohh-aahh!").

Set in the present, "Journey," the directorial debut of visual-effects artist Eric Brevig ("The Island"), stars Brendan Fraser as Trevor, a fringe-science professor whose unconventional work at a university is on the verge of being shut down. Just as he is about to embark on research — following up on the legacy of his long-missing brother — Trevor ends up in charge of his grumpy nephew, Sean (Josh Hutcherson).

The two end up in Iceland, joined by Hannah (Anita Briem), a guide who gets trapped with them inside a cave in which they drop (and drop and drop, to the sound of much whoah-ahh-oohh-aahh-ing) thousands of miles to the planet's rather exotic middle. The gimmicky 3-D provides visual oomph to all that falling, but it becomes more fun when the trio is later chased by a dinosaur, attacked by flying fish-beasts and sailing across a black sea eerily situated in the last place on Earth one would expect it.

The latter is a nod to the sort of 19th-century science and supernatural fiction that imagined the unexplored and unknown with hypnotic force, beyond the veil of ordinary life. That tone takes hold of a viewer more than other 3-D friendly scenes in the film, such as Sean's suspenseful hopscotch over a bridge of rock fragments magnetically suspended on high.

Fraser, once again, proves a reliably affable lead in a gimmick-heavy movie ("Monkeybone," "Looney Tunes: Back in Action"). Hutcherson and Briem pull their weight, too. But the absence of star charisma in "Journey" denies the audience some focus in a movie that keeps changing backdrops and is ultimately no more than the sum of its wild-eyed parts.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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