Just the other week, DVD Talk sent me a made-for-television production that purportedly adapted Jack London's White Fang to review. In that review, I commented about Jack London's status not only as a popular literary figure but as a writer who's work is now in the public domain, meaning anyone can film just about anything and slap his name and book titles onto it.
Jules Verne is another author who matches Jack London in this regard. Verne, a French writer from the 1800s, wrote several classic fantasy / science fiction novels that are still well-regarded today: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in 80 Days, and, germane to this review, Journey to the Center of the Earth. All three are in the public domain, and as such, all three have seen numerous adaptations in film and television.
With a big budget 3D version of Journey to the Center of the Earth currently making its rounds in the theaters, it's almost a no-brainer that another, far cheaper version has been made to ride on the coattails of the far more expensive production. Hence, there's this made-for-television version of Journey to the Center of the Earth recently released on DVD by Rhino Entertainment.
Now, I want to be clear that this is TV-level quality, and as such, the production values are about what one would expect. However, I have to admit that I found this far more entertaining than I expected I would when I sat down to view it. Journey to the Center of the Earth is well-paced, its plot never boring. It has nice period costumes and settings. And, while it has some requisite cheesy CG special effects, this production favors its characters far more in ways that aren't boring or superficial.
Journey to the Center of the Earth opens with an introduction to adventurer / explorer Jonathan Brock and his nephew Abel. While Abel is a bookish guy with an interest in becoming a journalist, his uncle is far more action-oriented. Jonathan resorts to pick-up rounds of boxing to earn money for his exploits. A wealthy and married heiress named Martha Dennison seeks Jonathan out for his assistance in finding her husband, Edward, who has gone missing in an expedition to Alaska. Jonathan and Abel agree to help her and journey to Alaska, where they befriend a Russian guide named Sergei whose own brother also disappeared in Edward's expedition. Together, the foursome have an adventurous quest in pursuit of Edward's expedition that takes them, you guessed it, to the center of the Earth.
The cast is fairly notable and professional, if a little unremarkable in their performances. Ricky Schroder, the child actor from the old sitcom Silver Spoons, doesn't overdo it as the hero of this adventure. (As a side note, Schroder looks very middle-aged here, which makes me feel . . . older . . . somehow, having grown up with Schroder's sitcom as it aired.) Victoria Pratt is quite good as Martha - she's attractive, but not too young, which works well for the plot as the love interest for not only Jonathan but also Edward. Edward is played by film legend and Oscar nominee Peter Fonda, although he understandably doesn't show up until the film's final act.
The film's script is episodic and moves from point A to point B in a well-paced manner that never feels like it drags. The storyline is pure fantasy and rather silly, but then again, so too is the book. The best thing I can say about Journey to the Center of the Earth is that it's a family friendly television production that actually works for what it is. Peter Fonda's character commits one act of murder that's a little shocking (although not explicit), but otherwise little kids should be able to watch and enjoy this. Recommended for families, but only as a rental for adults.
Journey to the Center of the Earth is given an anamorphic widescreen 1.78:1 presentation here. On the back of the DVD's cover art, Rhino claims that it "preserve[s] the aspect ratio of its original television exhibition," and I'm sure that this is the case. The image looks pretty good, although the color schemes - which often favor browns or blues - makes everything look a little murky at times.
The sole audio track is Dolby Digital 5.1. It's well-mixed, with the dialogue always clear and the score strong but never dominating. The audio is far from dynamic, though, but then again, there were fewer scenes that benefit from surround sound here than one would expect so it's not a major consideration.
Surprisingly, there are no subtitle options on this disc.
Trailers automatically precede the main menu for Tin Man and Terry Pratchett's Hogfather. There's no link for them in the main menu, however.
Two additional featurettes are included. The first is titled The Journey of a Lifetime: A Sit-Down Interview with Golden Globe Winner Peter Fonda (7:49) and has the actor discuss the project enthusiastically. The second is titled Behind the Scenes with Stars Ricky Schroder and Victoria Pratt (13:43) and has the actors discuss the project enthusiastically. They're the usual promotional type comments that try to sell the movie enthusiastically. While I wasn't enthusiastic about these extras, I give Rhino credit for adding 21 minutes of additional material, considering that many made-for-television DVDs I've taken a look at have zero extras.
Though far from a classic, this made-for-television production of Journey to the Center of the Earth is surprisingly well-paced and family friendly. Recommended.