“Journey to the Center of the Earth”

In your face. In more ways than one.

That’s the twist — and the appeal — of "Journey to the Center of the Earth."

The latest adaptation of Jules Verne’s durable 1864 fantasy (there have been nine other movie and TV versions, dating back to 1910) hits theaters as the first live-action feature shot in digital 3-D.

It’s not showing in digital 3-D at every theater, of course. But it should be. (The information box accompanying this review lists local multiplexes featuring the 3-D version.)

Without the 3-D effects, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is just another cinematic theme park ride, bursting with empty big-screen calories.

With 3-D, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is still a cinematic theme park ride, but at least it’s a relatively fun one — and chock full of reach-out-and-touch images guaranteed to make you giggle (how about a spinning yo-yo in the face?), squirm (ravenous beasties about to put the bite on you!) or maybe both at the same time (ewww … dinosaur drool!).

During the movies’ first flirtation with 3-D, in the 1950s, Hollywood studios applied the clunky technology to everything from thrillers ("Dial M for Murder") to musicals ("Kiss Me Kate"). Even without 3-D, those movies still entertain. (So does the Vincent Price creepshow "House of Wax," directed by the venerable André De Toth — who was blind in one eye and therefore couldn’t appreciate the movie’s three-dimensional shocks.)

All of them were designed to lure moviegoers away from the television sets that had recently taken up residence in living rooms across America.

Those black-and-white TVs have become wide-screen, high-definition entertainment centers where stay-at-home audiences can catch movies mere months after their theatrical runs.

But "Journey to the Center of the Earth’s" 3-D effects perform the same function "House of Wax’s" did, giving moviegoers something special — something they can’t get at home.

And while those 3-D effects are almost the whole show, "Journey to the Center of the Earth" boasts a few other qualities that make it, as they say, fun for the whole family. (Although the kids are likely to have a lot more fun that their parents.)

Chief among the movie’s attributes: hunky hero Brendan Fraser.

From time to time, Fraser’s demonstrated definite dramatic chops, as anyone who’s seen "The Quiet American" or "Gods and Monsters" will attest.

But in movies as different as "George of the Jungle" and "The Mummy," his expert comic timing and goofy, game-for-anything gusto can help transform the truly ridiculous into the ridiculously entertaining.

The same thing happens throughout "Journey to the Center of the Earth," which updates Verne’s classic tale of Prof. Lidenbrock of Hamburg, Germany, who drags his nephew off to Iceland after discovering an ancient manuscript referring to a portal leading to the very innards of the planet.

This time around, it’s absent-minded American professor Trevor Anderson (Fraser) who’s obsessed with the Earth’s core — because his brother Max disappeared while searching for it.

Now, Trevor’s university lab is about to be shut down by a smirky rival ("Saturday Night Live’s" Seth Myers). And Trevor’s sister-in-law has just dumped her surly 13-year-old son Sean ("Bridge to Terabithia’s" Josh Hutcherson) on his doorstep for 10 days of nephew-uncle bonding.

Their strained reunion takes an unexpected geographical detour when, while perusing Max’s copy of Verne’s "Journey to the Center of the Earth," Trevor discovers his brother’s predictions of unusual seismic activity seem to be coming true.

Which means Trevor and Sean are off to Iceland, where a comely mountain guide (Anita Briem, as frosty as the glacial surroundings ), daughter of a famed volcanologist, leads them to an ancient volcano where Trevor’s scientific sensors have been recording some very strange readings.

But that strangeness is nothing compared to what lies beneath as the trio takes refuge from a lightning storm inside a convenient cave — the first step in a fantastical, and possibly fatal, journey to the otherworldly (innerworldly?) title realm.

The serviceable screenplay (credited to Michael Weiss and the "Nim’s Island" team of Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin) doesn’t exactly overflow with the kind of sly yet irrepressible wit that energizes the likes of this summer’s "Indiana Jones" and "Iron Man" adventures.

But it provides a sturdy-enough structure to support the parade of perils that endanger our intrepid threesome, from a runaway roller coaster (oops, I mean a runaway mine-car) to a sea of razor-toothed flying fish.

In his feature directorial debut, veteran visual-effects supervisor Eric Brevig (an Oscar nominee for "Pearl Harbor" and "Hook") reveals a brisk sense of let’s-get-on-with-it efficiency.

Every time a glimmer of emotion or character development threatens to slow the movie’s hurtling momentum, Brevig tosses out another in-your-face 3-D effect — and serves up another reminder of what "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is really all about.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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