Scientist Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) and his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) travel to Iceland, following Sean’s long-missing father. With guide Hannah (Anita Briem), they are trapped in a cave and forced to follow Jules Verne’s perilous route into the centre of the Earth.
Like all good 3D films, this take on Jules Verne’s adventure novel gives you a few minutes to get your eye in. Journey bombards the audience with a dream sequence dinosaur attack and litters the pre-adventure reel of set-up with make-you-gasp gambits. In a 3D cinema first, mouthwash is spat in our faces, but veterans of stereoscop-sploitation will know what to expect when a yo-yo is produced.
There’s something sweet and childish about the 3D gimmick, and this is notable among recent movies for not being ashamed of its contrivances - the whole point is to stick trilobite antennae in your face, take you on a Temple of Doom-style underground rollercoaster ride or have you plummet miles with the screaming heroes. This is the first 3D film to combine live-action and CGI to any great extent (Beowulf was all CG), and - though early trailers looked murky - the effect is often startlingly good. The fully-realised, magical cavern vistas feel like substantial physical environments but also capture that movie magic associated with really fine matte paintings.
This is rooted in a pre-Indy, pre-Star Wars tradition of fantastical fun. This respectfully positions itself as a sequel to Verne’s yarn as well as a throwback: just as junior hero Sean learns he can have fun with a yo-yo as well as his PlayStation, this cutting-edge big-screen entertainment keeps telling the audience to go read a book. That alone is enough to give the film a glow.
Brendan Fraser gives an open-hearted, adventurous performance as a genuinely daring scientist: it’s funny and touching when his companions are overcome to find valuable jewels but he is as excited by ordinary rocks (‘diamonds … rubies … feldspar!’). Josh Hutcherson, of Bridge to Terabithia, has the usual arc from sulky tween to fully-engaged adventurer, but is miraculously non-icky and especially fine in an outstanding sequence where he crosses a chasm. And genuine Icelander Anita Briem more than justifies the script’s description of her as ‘best mountain guide ever’. The script is an excuse to plunge from one peril to the next, but has a deft touch, even in its one unexpected moment of tragedy, which makes the film more coherent and satisfying than many another summer blockbusters.
Fraser on form, 3D dinosaurs, geology lessons, phosphorecent hummingbirds, killer flying fish, theme park rides, Icelandic babe - what’s not to like? It skews young, but is everything an 8-12 year-old could want. Older siblings and parents will have nothing to complain about either.