As simple and direct as its abbreviated title, “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” is a fun though rarely funny family adventure whose lively special effects compensate somewhat for actors who largely sleepwalk through their roles. With franchise continuity hinging solely on Josh Hutcherson, reprising his role from 2008’s hit “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” it’s up to Dwayne Johnson to fill the father-figure vacuum left by Brendan Fraser. Despite limp characterizations, the eye-popping effects and Johnson’s fanbase should combine to help this Warner Bros. release capitalize swimmingly on its 3D upcharge.
Opening narration by Michael Caine describes sci-fi pioneer Jules Verne and the “Vernians,” followers who believe the French novelist’s works offer more than just science-flavored entertainment. The pic’s uncredited source text is Verne’s 1874 novel “The Mysterious Island,” which has provided a rich cinematic vein in the past: Multiple versions have appeared since the silent era (elements of the story were folded into 1916’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” with which it shares the character of Captain Nemo), and it even inspired ABC’s “Lost.”
Auds get an early taste of the pic’s 3D effects with an opening chase sequence in which teenager Sean Anderson (Hutcherson), having broken into a satellite tracking station, is pursued on his motorcycle by cops around the suburbs of Dayton, Ohio. Five years after the events of “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Sean clearly still needs a firm hand, and his concerned new stepfather, Hank (Johnson), hopes to provide it.
Sean has gotten hold of a coded transmission that consists of character names from Verne novels, and that’s enough to convince him that his Vernian grandfather is sending a message. As with the first film, which used its source material as a convenient guidebook to keep the plot moving, Sean is certain his hardback copy of “The Mysterious Island” provides the clue to his granddad’s location.
Having been a codebreaker in the Navy, Hank helps Sean solve the puzzle and figure out the location of the titular Pacific island in a matter of seconds. As the boy already has been to the center of the planet with his uncle, it’s a small matter for his mother (Kristin Davis, replacing Jane Wheeler) to let him travel to the South Pacific accompanied by his stepdad, low-rent helicopter pilot Gabato (Luis Guzman, stuck playing the cowardly comic relief), and Gabato’s fiery daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), who gets Sean’s pulse racing.
Following a lightning storm that strands the quartet in a tropical paradise, the pic finally hits its stride both in terms of effects and excitement with the appearance of a giant, aggravated lizard. Coming to the rescue is Sean’s grandfather, Alexander Anderson (the previously heard but not seen Caine), whose resemblance to Indiana Jones is emphasized by a John Williams-esque flourish in Andrew Lockington’s score.
From there, the proceedings are mostly stop-and-go, alternating dazzling special effects with dull expository passages and flaccid character conflict, much of it driven by the difference in mentoring styles between Sean’s competitive father figures. A belching volcano foreshadows a big finish, but the pic never develops a sense of building momentum, and most of the jokes fall flat.
With helmer Brad Peyton (“Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore”) primarily invested in the CGI elements, the actors often seem stuck in an energy-draining vortex; Hutcherson appears less engaged the second time around and none-too-eager for a possible third installment of the Verne-inspired franchise, while Caine merely looks fatigued. Johnson at least embodies a near-shameless charm, at one point warbling his way through a ukelele-backed rendition of “What a Wonderful World.” Hudgens, who spends almost the entire film in khaki shorts and tanktop and is subjected to some prurient glances by the camera, provides a feisty presence, even if her aggressive attitude seems more redolent of L.A. than the tropics.
The unspoiled island looks supernaturally vivid, the colorful backdrops seamlessly blended with North Carolina and Hawaii locations to create a persuasive impression of an actual world. All other tech credits are first-rate.