Hinting at the perils in synergy, “Land of the Lost” conspicuously feels as though someone at Universal was already planning the theme-park ride spinoff before taking a painfully wrong turn with the movie. Modernizing a 1970s children’s TV show known for its cheap special effects offered certain possibilities, but the filmmakers have traded in any kid-friendly elements for bathroom humor of dinosaur-sized proportions. The result is a movie with an exceedingly narrow target aud that should test Will Ferrell’s appeal among boys maybe ages 12-14 — about the only demo likely able to endure this laborious mess.
Director Brad Silberling previously mixed special effects with comedy in “Casper” and “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” but all the technology here seems to exist strictly for its own sake, without any thought to servicing an actual story. As for the performers cast adrift amid the mayhem, let’s put it this way: It’s never a good sign when “Today” host Matt Lauer (more synergy there, given the NBC-Universal connection) delivers the least irritating performance in a movie.
Despite paying lip service to an affinity for the campy source material, writers Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas have essentially kept the title of Sid and Marty Krofft’s original series — about a father and his two kids who descend into a primeval world, complete with lizard people, furry, monkey-like creatures and one stiff-looking T-Rex — and mostly abandoned everything else.
In essence, only the names remain unchanged, with Ferrell as Dr. Rick Marshall, a “quantum paleontologist” who, after a disastrous appearance plugging his book with Lauer, winds up teaching science to elementary school kids. All that quickly changes, however, when attractive Cambridge doctoral student Holly (“Pushing Daisies'” Anna Friel, deserving better) walks in, prodding Marshall to revisit his research.
The two schlep out to the middle of nowhere, picking up a goofy tour guide, Will (Danny McBride, a Ferrell repertory member), before being sucked through a roller-coaster-like vortex into the you-know-what. There they encounter the ape-like Chaka (fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Jorma Taccone), who speaks in guttural grunts and keeps not-so-subtly feeling up Holly, and a hostile T-Rex that takes an instant dislike to Rick.
From there, it’s a tired, steep descent down the cinematic evolutionary ladder. Ferrell and McBride appear to enjoy riffing off each other — including a sequence in which they get wildly high together — but with only four characters in much of the movie, that’s a whole lot of them to take. And while Silberling produces a few big visual gags — from the dinosaurs, which strongly resemble those in “Jurassic Park,” to a thirsty primitive mosquito — there’s an episodic quality to those scenes that makes the exercise play like a tedious trek to the exit in more ways than one.
In the process, a lot of expensive effects-work is squandered, as well as a few cheap-looking elements (including the character designs) meant to evoke the cheeky charms of the original series. Other wasted contributions amid a soundtrack replete with loud screaming include Michael Giacchino’s score.
Granted, this is hardly the first adaptation of a classic TV show to go awry, but it’s among the most misguided. In hindsight, the movie looks like a secondary consideration to the marketing possibilities, such as the “Today” tie-in and Ferrell’s appearance on the Discovery Channel adventure program “Man vs. Wild.”
“Bad things happen in caves, folks,” Will warns his companions at one point. “Watch your movies.” As “Land of the Lost” proves, they can happen in theaters, too.