Monday, July 16, 2012

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island


On Sunday nights, my wife and I like treating the kids to the same sorts of films we watched as kids on the Wonderful World of Disney. Usually, this is as easy as watching a classic Disney animation, or live action like Mary Poppins. But this week, we suggested Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. I suspected it wasn't going to be a life changing movie, as the reviews were lackluster, and the trailer revealed little relating to Verne's book. I assumed the movie was using nothing more than the name. Thankfully, I was wrong on all counts.
Firstly, the film was life-changing: not for me or my wife, but for the little ones in the room. My son is six and daughter four, and we've chosen to limit their film experiences to age-appropriate fare. I have occasionally stretched that limit when my son has begged, a tradition I inherited from my father, who snuck me in to a drive-in to see Conan the Barbarian when I was in grade five. I followed this tradition when I took my son to see the terribly kid-unfriendly Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon in the theatre. But for the most part, our kids choose kids movies like Alvin and the Chipmunks or any number of Pixar movies. It's rare they choose something that has "mild peril" without my encouragement. After surviving Journey 2's jump-scares and chase scenes, I can tell they're excited for more experiences of the same kind. My son pronounced the film "the best movie he'd ever seen," which made me smile, since I'd been wandering down memory lane while we watched it.
Many critics panned this movie with a pretentious dismissiveness that neglected to take Journey 2's obvious intention into account. You could feel that they were comparing it to one of those children's films that win awards, but kids never watch, like Journey of the Kells (which I think is brilliant - I just can't convince my kids it would be worth seeing). C.S. Lewis wisely advised readers to recognize what they're reading before passing judgment on it: In his Preface to "Paradise Lost" Lewis argues that "the first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is -- what is was intended to do and how it is meant to be used." What is Journey 2 then? It felt very much to me like an homage to the adventure films of the '60s and '70s that used the Victorian scientific romance as inspiration. I'm on the same page as Donald Clarke of the Irish Times, who declared "It's all a bit silly," but aptly recognized that "Journey 2 [has] the uncomplicated charm of those ancient mid-budget epics in which Doug McClure narrowly avoided being eaten by Pterodactyls."
 That was the memory lane for me: Journey 2 isn't the brilliance I expect from Pixar, or even the middle-lane clever of Dreamworks, but rather the popcorn familiarity of a B-movie at the Saturday matinee. My flashback was watching McClure in Warlords of Atlantis at a Saturday matinee. Journey 2 is an homage to Verne in the broader sense that Brian Taves speaks of in “Hollywood’s Jules Verne” from his Jules Verne Encyclopedia. Taves argues that “Today, any Verne enthusiast’s reading of the original works is bound to be intertwined with viewing the films. The Vernian “text” is no longer simply his novels, but the accumulation of impressions gained through many versions in the performing arts” (205). Richard Fleischer, director of the 1954 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea believed the Disney film to be the version of Verne’s story “known today by most young people” (Frazier and Hathorne 39). Anecdotally, I find that most people who say they are a fan of Verne are referring to the film adapations, not the books.
Three maps from Stevenson, Swift, and Verne, which form the whole map of the Mysterious Island.
  Journey 2 demonstrates that it knows both the literary and cinematic tradition of The Mysterious Island. Some of the references are simply for laughs, such as Dwayne Johnson's doomsaying pronouncement that they need to get off the fast-sinking island quickly or they'll all be "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Others are lovely encouragements to young readers to try out classic literature, with cameos by Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island, Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, and a antique looking copy of Verne's Mysterious Island. Journey 2 knows the novel well enough to mirror the opening hot-air-balloon crash with that of a rickety helicopter; it knows that Nemo is an Indian, rendering Nemo's journal and the controls of the Nautilus in Hindi.
 
Referencing the cinematic tradition, the first monster the adventurers encounter is a giant lizard, a potential nod to the reptiles with tacked-on prosthetics of the 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, while the later giant bees are borrowed from Ray Harryhausen's work on the 1961 version of The Mysterious Island, as is the design of the Nautilus. This Nautilus looks nothing like that cigar-shaped cylinder of Verne's imagination: it owes much to Harryhausen and steampunk. I loved the innovated design, which had a nice post-Star Wars vibe to it. It's the sort of Nautilus a six-year old boy gasps at seeing, and a 41-year-old reminisces by.
The 1961 Design of the Nautilus
Journey 2's Manta Ray Nautilus Designs by Teves' Design Studio

 But ultimately, I know many adults will still find Journey 2 unpalatable, cultured as we are to act like the jerks cum judges of competitive television such as American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance?  This is not criticism, it's just snark. Journey 2 is meant for the pre-teen brain. It's a picture aimed at the liminal space between safe cartoons and more mature fare. My son and daughter loved it, thrilled by its relatively safe crises, and ultimately, that's going to change my life too: if a child finds their way from cartoons to cartoonish adventures, they'll find their way to movies like the new Spider-man film. Instead of having to contemplate seeing Madagascar 4 in a year or two, I'll be able to take them to see the forthcoming Hobbit movies, or the next Avengers flick. But that really isn't the point - sometimes, it's just good to become like a child again to enjoy something for the sheer silly joy of a movie where a torpedo can blow a boulder to fine debris, allowing a submarine to sail through it unscathed. As Michael Caine, who plays the grandfather-adventurer in the film stated in an interview, "It's not bloody King Lear." Which is a good thing, because I'd be the only one sitting on the couch for Sunday movie night if it was.
Nearly every movie idea I had as a kid ended with a volcanic conflagration. Of course, those involved baking soda and vinegar, not this awesome looking CGI destruction.