There's an rushed, thrown-together quality about Brad Silberling's Land of the Lost; it feels, particularly in its opening sequences, incomplete and hurried, as if scenes were re-written on the spot and tossed out by the handful in post. This is based purely on instinct, which could be way off, but the point is, it has that feeling about it: that they took a known quantity (in this case, the cult 70s TV series), threw in a big-star (Will Ferrell), set a summer release date, and pushed to make that date. In those sorts of situations, the script is the least of anyone's concerns, and as a result, Land of the Lost feels like what it is: a filmed deal.
Which is not to say there aren't some laughs in it. Most of them come courtesy of Danny McBride, who pretty much steals the picture. I was no big fan of his breakthrough film, The Foot Fist Way (director Jody Hill hadn't yet figured out how to nail down his particular tone--a problem fixed by the time he made Observe and Report), but McBride was in fine form in Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express, and he's funny as hell here, even when he has to do most of the heavy lifting. Ferrell, on the other hand, gives a markedly half-assed performance--he's proven he can create a character, both in over-the-top comedies like Anchorman and Stepbrothers and more serious stuff like Stranger than Fiction, but he doesn't bother to craft one here. His Dr. Rick Marshall is little more than an amalgamation of his other dumb blowhard characters, a variation on what is becoming a tiresomely familiar schtick. He gets laughs too, yes, but he sure doesn't seem to be trying all that hard to entertain us a new or interesting way.
Oh yeah, the plot. Dr. Marshall is a once-respected scientist who has become a laughingstock, both for his far-fetched theories and a Today show appearance in which he's ridiculed for them (by a surprisingly game Matt Lauer). In his misery, he is approached by Holly Cantrell (the lovely Anna Friel of Pushing Daisies), who has studied and idolized his work, and brings him possible proof of his validity. To investigate, they go on a "routine expedition" in a chintzy faux-attraction run by Will (McBride), a good-ol'-boy fireworks salesman. While they're there, they're sucked into some kind of a vortex that throws them into a land of dinosaurs, lizard people, and other strange creatures, so they must find their way back, and so on.
The screenplay, by TV writers Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas, isn't terribly nimble; the laugh lines are almost exclusively the throwaways and toss-offs, most of which feel like Ferrell and McBride improvisations. The constructed comic sequences (like Marshall's dance through the dinosaur eggs) and running jokes (like a tiresome bit about his love for A Chorus Line) fall hopelessly flat. When it's light and off-the-cuff, when its comic stars are having fun (as when McBride, and latter Ferrell, are riffing on their discovery of a giant glass object), it has a quality akin to the Hope and Crosby pictures, but you can't always count on the inspiration of improvisation--the exclamation "William Shatner's nipples," for example, is no way to end a scene, scripted or not.
More distressing are Brad Silberling's odd stylistic choices. Silberling is a talented director, on canvasses small (Moonlight Mile) and big (the underrated Lemony Snicket movie, which I found more entertaining and tighter-paced than all of the Harry Potter films, save Alfonso Cuarón's), but the look of the film is all over the place. There's a strangely chintzy, back-lot quality to the sets (the 1.85:1 framing feels cluttered and claustrophobic, like the seams of the sets would show if they moved the camera back enough to really block the scenes) and especially the costumes--the lizard people and monkey people look like they stepped out of a shabby Corman picture. I had finally decided that they must have been doing a deliberate homage to the low-budget look of the original series, but then the dinosaurs show up, and they're all as sleek and CG-enhanced as a Jurassic sequel, so what the hell? Which is it? The incongruity is, frankly, a little maddening.
There are other moments of sloppy filmmaking--some of the edits are simply ghastly. In one scene, Marshall and Will must rescue Holly from a cage protected by eight or so lizard men; they dispatch (by my count) three of them, and then they're all gone. Do they think we're not paying attention? In an earlier scene, Mashall is nearly drained dry by a blood-sucking insect, but Will and Holly's non-reactive cutaways don't make any sense. And speaking of nonsense, what's with all the boob-grabbing and tacky drug jokes? Isn't this ostensibly a kids movie?
Land of the Lost has its pleasures--McBride's energetic performance, the always-charming Friel in small outfits--but it's ultimately a mess. It's too schlocky and too adult-minded in its humor for the family audience, but too dumb in its broad strokes for grown-ups. I'm not sure exactly who it's for, in fact, but whoever they are, they can surely wait for DVD to see it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.