The Halmi family's Midas touch is little more than fool's gold in this elaborate but ultimately juvenile retelling of the Jules Verne fantasy.

The Halmi family’s Midas touch is little more than fool’s gold in this elaborate but ultimately juvenile retelling of the Jules Verne fantasy. Still, this descent into the bowels of the Earth is a step in the right direction for USA original movies, given the Hallmark name and talent attached to this project, and “Journey” should pull in big numbers, especially with preteen boys. With nothing strikingly new to offer, however, it’s a case of a network trying to get lightning to strike twice.

Like last year’s successful “Moby Dick,” adventure is the main sell for this pic, which is generally faithful to the original Verne narrative. Director George Miller’s production falters by mistaking macho ideals and visual stunts for substantive programming.

Pic starts out respectably enough with geologist Theodore Lytton (Treat Williams) hired by the wealthy Alice Hastings (Tushka Bergen) to find her husband, Casper, who disappeared seven years earlier during an expedition into a volcano in New Zealand. Fueled by the idea that they can return home with evidence that proves Darwin’s theory of evolution, Theodore enlists his recently engaged nephew Jonas (Jeremy London) to go with him. Jonas, reluctant and a bit of a hypochondriac, feels bound by duty to help his uncle.

Cannibals, thieves and seasickness are just some of the obstacles the adventurers face above ground. But with Alice and the gruff but wise McNiff (Hugh Keays-Byrne) along for the journey, the trip into Mount Ruapehu opens a whole new universe of wonders and dangers.

The second night of the mini-series finds the explorers enveloped in the politics of an underground world, now led by Casper (Bryan Brown). Theodore and Alice fight their attraction while Jonas has forgotten about his betrothed and has taken up with scantily clad native Ralna (Petra Yared).

Editor Harry Hitner keeps things moving at a crisp pace, especially in part one, but by part two, the initial curiosity factor has worn off and the story begins to drag. (It doesn’t help that Baum adds misplaced “tastes like chicken” humor to the script).

Also, as it turns out, underground women don’t need a lot of clothes and they tend to worship men. Second night contains more than one subplot dealing with the underground civilization’s notion of free love.

Williams approaches the role of Theodore with gusto and is the sole source of enthusiasm; he propels the cast. As Alice, Bergen gives some feminist spin on what has been played in the past as purely a love-interest role. London (Griffin on “Party of Five”) is once again put in the role of the heartthrob, and he carries it out accordingly without straining his acting skills. Keays-Byrne is a nice find as McNiff, offering real comic relief. Brown is the most ill-fitting cast member, offering a most uninspired performance as the egotistical Casper.

Special f/x are not used to maximum benefit: Scenery is breathtaking at times, too manufactured at others. The Sauroids, human-sized dinosaurs that stalk the group, look like menacing versions of the Sleestaks from Sid and Marty Krofft’s 1974 series “Land of the Lost.” Lackluster costumes and effects neutralize any element of horror or suspense.

Bruce Rowland composed a lively score for the pic, but the rest of the technical credits are uneven.

Journey to the Center of the Earth

USA Network; Tues. Wed., Sept. 14, 15, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Australia and New Zealand by Hallmark Entertainment in association with USA Network. Executive producers, Robert Halmi Jr., David Picker; producers, George Miller, Connie Collins; director, Miller; writer, Tom Baum

Cast

Theodore Lytton - Treat Williams Jonas Lytton - Jeremy London Alice Hastings - Tuska Bergen McNiff - Hugh Keays-Byrne Ralna - Petra Yared Casper Hastings - Bryan Brown Helen - Tessa Wells Mashowna - Sarah Chadwick
Camera, John Stokes; editor, Harry Hitner; music, Bruce Rowland; casting, Maura Fay, Sharon Jetton. Running time: 4 HOURS.
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