[box cover]

Journey to the Center of the Earth

The 1954 interpretation of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, starring James Mason, wasn't just the best live-action adventure Disney has ever made. It proved that a 19th-century French proto-science-fiction novelist was a gold mine of colorful, bigger-than-life Hollywood "family entertainment." So more kid-friendly adaptations of Verne's novels were inevitable, and among the most fondly remembered are 1961's Mysterious Island and 1959's Journey to the Center of the Earth — the latter distinguished by its curious casting mix of Mason and pop croonster Pat Boone, some striking CinemaScope vistas, and Bernard Herrmann's orchestral score with cathedral-sized pipe organs.

Journey is a lavish, effects-filled fantasy that takes all the expected departures from Verne's staid travelogue. Added are a stock villain who lacks only a mustache to twirl, a pretty yet strong-willed woman (merde!), a few bland sing-alongs from Boone, and the dinosaurs are photographically enlarged lizards with fins glued to their backs. Nevertheless, for a live-action comic-book adventure this may be among the best-looking B-movies ever made. Mason adds his usual class and charm as prickly Prof. Lindenbrook, a geologist who cracks open a 300-year-old mystery when he investigates a strange lava rock provided by his tuneful student, Boone (who's actually not too nauseating). After clues point to a path into the Earth's core through an Icelandic volcano, the Lindenbrook Expedition descends into an underworld of mammoth caverns, glowing crystalline grottos, giant mushrooms, the remains of Atlantis, and (of course) dinosaurs.

Arlene Dahl presages Women's Lib as the busty spitfire widow who insists on coming along after her husband, Lindenbrook's rival, is murdered by an evil Count (Thayer David) racing them to the prize. Joining them are a beefcake Icelander (Peter Ronson) and his pet duck Gertrude (that one's for the kiddies, although the end of her story arc may send impressionable tykes straight to therapy).

It's all beautifully photographed, the Oscar-nominated Art Direction filling every 'Scope inch with fine subterranean matte paintings and scene designs. And gigantized lizards with fins glued to their backs have never looked better. As good, wholesome entertainment, its look and lightweight tone make this movie a closer cousin to H.G. Wells' First Men In The Moon ('64) than to 20,000 Leagues. The plot turns on one coincidence after another, Dahl remains remarkably well coiffed after months underground, and Verne's absurd literary ending is made even sillier, but who cares? Here's a great one for those rainy Sunday afternoons when you want the kids off that damn Xbox.

*          *          *

Fox's impressive DVD edition gives us Journey with a fully restored anamorphic 2.35:1 image created from a new negative. It's sharp, colorful, and polished so clean you could eat off it. The original 4-track MagOptical soundtrack comes in a DD 4.0 Surround mix that lifts the Oscar-nominated sound design with nice environmental wraparound ambiance. Herrmann's lauded score receives gold-standard treatment all the way down to its quake-inducing subterranean registers.

Extras are the original trailer, trailers for other Fox fantasies, and a restoration comparison that shows off the exemplary work done for this disc. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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