The title of this sequel to the 2008 “Journey to the Center of the Earth” gets points as marginally clever. Since the center of the earth doesn't figure into the new film, the filmmakers have retained the word “journey” and branded it with the numeral “2” to drive home the connection; at the same time, it reads aloud as “Journey to the Mysterious Island.”
The film itself can likewise be regarded as marginally clever. It employs the same conceit as its predecessor — that 21st century characters can rediscover the world within Jules Verne's novels, because the novels themselves were only disguised as fiction. This time, it's revealed that Robert Louis Stevenson and Jonathan Swift were playing the same game, allowing director Brad Peyton and the writers to combine Verne's “Mysterious Island” with a few minor elements from “Treasure Island” and “Gulliver's Travels.”
Sean, the surly 13-year-old from “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” is now a surly 17-year-old — certainly good news for actor Josh Hutcherson (“The Kids Are All Right”), who appears to have grown about six inches in the interim. If Sean was troubled before by the absence of his late dad, he's troubled now by the presence of a new step dad. Hank (Dwayne Johnson) can't seem to break down Sean's resistance until they collaboratively translate a coded radio message, which pinpoints an uncharted island not far from Palau, New Guinea. Sean is convinced it's a distress call from his grandfather, Alexander (Michael Caine).
This is pretty much Hardy Boys-level plotting. (“Gee, Frank,” Joe said, rescuing a shred of ancient parchment from the gutters of their American small town, “Do you think it might have something to do with the long-lost pirate treasure that strange old man told us about yesterday?”) But Sean manages to bully Hank into accompanying him to Palau to investigate. The script then conveniently introduces the comic relief character (Luis Guzman) and the teen romantic interest (Vanessa Hudgins). In no time, the four are stranded on the titular island, which is full of scenery and action ideas that seem like “Avatar” knockoffs.
You know the rest: prehistoric animal attacks, giant insects, Grandpa, Atlantis, Captain Nemo, the Nautilus, chases, adolescent Tracy/Hepburn bickering, and like that. It's cute and it's PG and it moves right along. The 3D effects are subtler than in the first “Journey” — no gratuitous yo-yo tricks.
Many sequels are thinly disguised remakes, but this one, oh no. Instead of an unadventuresome kid won over by daredevil adult, we've got an unadventuresome adult won over by a daredevil kid. The kid, not the adult, gets the romantic subplot. The elder hero is a stepfather, not an uncle. The gigantic, scary dinosaurs aren't the same ones as before. See? No similarities at all.
Like its predecessor, it feels more juvenile than, say, the 1959 version of “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” but back then I was more juvenile too, so it may be just me. Its virtues rest mainly in the casting. The kids are indeed all right, and the always-welcome Caine gets points by now just for being Caine.
Johnson continues to project a lot of charm and even to surprise: In one of the few restful moments amidst the almost nonstop action scenes, he whips out a ukulele and sings a lovely version of “Wonderful World.” And he appears to be actually playing, not finger-syncing, which adds to the effect.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).