JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND: The Thunder Cookie

Journey 2 The Mysterious Island Quad

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012) – Directed by Brad Peyton – Starring Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Josh Hutcherson, Vanessa Hudgens, Luis Guzman, and Kristin Davis.

Maybe it’s just a consequence of getting older, but it’s nice, on occasion, to watch a family friendly movie that is incredibly simple, straightforward, and likable. There’s nothing cool or hip or groundbreaking about JOURNEY 2: THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, but that adds to the charm of a movie that flails about like an oversized puppy, clumsy and desperate to please.

With sometimes clunky direction, cheese ball dialogue, and awkward action sequences, there are more reasons for me to dislike this movie rather than like it, but the filmmakers were smart to populate their movie with five highly likable actors who put a good effort forward: Dwayne Johnson, Michael Caine, Luis Guzman, Vanessa Hudgens, and Josh Hutcherson. Whenever these actors smile their way through lines that must make them cringe inwardly, it actually adds to the film’s likability. Because some of the material is so bad and because they’re trying so hard to make it work, I found myself pulled along through the movie.

JOURNEY 2 is a simpler version of National Treasure, which is, itself, a simpler version of a Dan Brown story, which is, itself, a more complicated version of reality. Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) receives a coded radio message from his grandfather, Alexander (Michael Caine), and gets some help cracking the code from his new stepfather, Hank (Dwayne Johnson). Sean hates Hank because he’s not his real father, and Hank is constantly looking for ways to bond with Sean. Luckily, Hank was in the Navy and knows how to translate dots and dashes. Sean’s knowledge of books helps the two guys jump from clue to clue, eventually connecting Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels through the realization that all three men were actually writing about the same island.

Sean’s hatred of Hank and Hank’s earnest desperation at wanting to be a father figure are incredibly cliche and painful to watch, but Hutcherson and Johnson’s ability to play these types straight makes watching them much less painful than they would be in less-committed hands. Once the two of them find common ground and start running around figuring out clues, they have an easy chemistry together and the momentum builds rapidly. It’s much easier to get excited about a narrative when the characters in the story are able to convey an energy about what they’re doing to the audience. With Hutcherson and Johnson, it’s easy to see that they like what they’re doing, and they help give JOURNEY 2 an old-timey feel; there’s never any doubt we’re watching a movie (or that the characters in the film don’t know they’re in a movie) in which all of the good guys are going to get out alive, but it’s fun watching them get there.

The best decision the filmmakers made was not having a villain.

When watching JOURNEY 2, you can see all of the places where there could easily be a character with ulterior motives smirking at the backs of the good guys. Or the moments where you half expect a cutaway to a bad guy sitting in a lair plotting to stop the heroes. Or the scenes where you’re certain some ancient evil is about to be unleashed.

None of that happens, as the movie focuses on the familial relationships between Hank and Sean, Hank and Alexander, and Gabato (Luis Guzman) and his daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens). There are plenty of big bugs and birds and cracking earth to serve as obstacles on their journey across the island, but even when there are action scenes, the focus is largely on the interactions between the characters. Sean think Kailani is hot so we watch him try to impress her and fail, and then just be himself and succeed. (It helps that just being himself involves him saving her life.) Hank and Alexander have an elongated dick-swinging spat over who’s the better father figure for Sean. Gabato spends his time caring for his daughter and man-crushing on Hank.

The lack of a villain helps keep the film family friendly. If I was a kid right now, I bet I’d watch JOURNEY 2 the way I used to watch the Sinbad and Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold: something sorta fun to watch on a Saturday afternoon when there wasn’t a Bruins or Red Sox game on to occupy my time.

The biggest conflicts in the movie are family-related, too: between Sean and Hank, and Hank and Alexander. The film wisely puts Dwayne Johnson in the middle of the film. Replacing Brendan Fraser from the previous movie, what’s most impressive about Johnson here is the way he peels his intensity back to work within the context of the film’s overall tone. He’s constantly poking fun at his own hyper-masculinity, and isn’t afraid to use that image to be the object of scorn (from Sean), of territorial jealousy (from Alexander), and of fawning (from Gabato).

As the Rock, Johnson took on so many different personas over the years that he probably has as much live theater training as an old vet like Michael Caine. That the Rock was always largely playing some version of himself with the volume turned up, I think it must make it easier for him to shade his on-screen persona depending on the role he’s playing. He’s as comfortable in movies now as he was during the Attitude Era, looking like a man who doesn’t have anything to prove but is still willing to work within the confines of what’s asked of him. “You want me to look at a giant lizard and call my balled up fists, Thunder Cookie? You got it.”

There are several times in the movie when I couldn’t quite believe I was watching a movie where the Rock and Michael Caine were trading barbs with one another. They are completely ridiculous barbs, too: Alexander keeps calling Hank, “Henry,” and Hank keeps insisting it’s, “Hank. Never Henry.” It’s childish and goofy and both actors look like they’re having a blast. JOURNEY 2 is the kind of movie where you end up assuming everyone is making the movie so they can show it to their grandkids, and Caine is the ringleader in infusing everything he does with a twinkle in his eye.

Everyone here does their part, though. Hutcherson has such an honest presence on the screen that it seems inevitable he will one day star in a remake of Matlock. Guzman (remember when it seemed like he was in every other movie that was released?) manages to take a cartoonish character and fill him with real emotion; while his man-crush on Hank is played largely for laughs, his earnest love for his daughter and his desire to give her a better future elevate him beyond comic relief. I don’t ever remember seeing Vanessa Hudgens in anything (apparently, I saw her in Sucker Punch but was not motivated by her performance to write about it in my reaction – though, to be fair, I need to rewrite that review as it’s not one of my best efforts), but she’s quite good here as the loving daughter and hesitant love interest.

JOURNEY 2 is a really fun, pleasant, totally predictable and likable movie. Ten years ago I’m quite certain I would have hated it, but right now, I find the the existence of solidly made, perfectly friendly movies like JOURNEY 2 and The Smurfs reassuring. Walt Disney, Pixar, and even DreamWorks are now making animated movies that are far more grown-up than they were twenty years ago; there’s a greater depth to not only story and characterization but to the visual experience, as well. Those studios are making movies for the whole family, but often doing it in such a way that different members of the family are having different experiences: segments are designed for kids to enjoy and other things are there for the adults. There’s a gap, now, for films that are broadly likable, that just tell an exciting, simple story, and do so in a fun manner.

That’s what JOURNEY 2 does, and I’m glad it does it.

_________

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