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Journey is fantastic family ride
Anita Briem, left, Brendan Fraser, center, and Josh Hutcherson star in "Journey to the Center of the Earth," a fantasy available at some theaters in new 3-D technology.

Brendan Fraser maintains his modern matinee idol status with "Journey to the Center of the Earth," a charming adventure movie that faces the uphill climb of opening against Guillermo del Toro's "Hellboy II" and Eddie Murphy's latest yawner, "Meet Dave."

Allow me to give you some reasons to support the underdog this week.

Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) is a scientist whose kooky geological theories have made him an academic outcast. His nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) visits for a weekend, and the two find the only thing they have in common is lingering grief over the disappearance of Max, Trevor's brother and Sean's father.

Trevor and Sean begin reminiscing about Max and musing on his favorite novel, Jules Verne's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." Notes in Max's copy of the book provide insight into data Trevor has recently collected, and Trevor and Sean soon become convinced they can retrace Max's fateful underground expedition.

Uncle and nephew jet off to Iceland, where they team up with Hannah Asgeirsson (Anita Briem), who is, conveniently, a mountain climber, an expert on Verne's novel and a total babe.

Adventures ensue.

"Journey" follows the novel and the 1959 film adaptation starring James Mason, but the book mostly serves as a guide as the trio finds its way through Earth's mystical underworld. So it's an updated, self-aware adaptation.

The movie almost requires two separate reviews, because in theaters equipped with the right projectors, it will be shown in 3-D.

In good ol' 2-D, it's an exciting piece of escapism the whole family can enjoy. It zips along from one fantastic cliffhanger and chase to another, with plenty of Fraser's corny jokes to keep us chuckling.

The tone is similar to "Jurassic Park." The characters experience family bonding while dodging prehistoric animals and collapsing floors and such. No one swears, there is no gun violence and the kissing is minimal. It's even more tame than Fraser's "Mummy" franchise.

When "Prince Caspian" passes for PG and "Hancock" gets a PG-13, the value of genuine family movies has skyrocketed like oil.

In 3-D, all of the above still applies, but "Journey" becomes a significant technological achievement, too.

Without getting too techie, "Journey" is the first movie made using a new camera called the Pace Fusion 3-D. It's actually two digital cameras "fused" together: one camera films an image for the right eye, the other films for the left eye. Two projectors then throw the images on screen, we put on the RealD glasses, and the result is spectacular.

I guarantee it: you have never seen a 3-D movie that looks this good.

At a recent promotional appearance, Fraser touted "Journey" as the beginning of a filmmaking revolution, comparing it to the shift from silent to sound movies (isn't he just adorable?).

It isn't quite that radical, but with widescreen, hi-def TVs in millions of homes, the movie industry needs to find ways to keep selling tickets. This new 3-D process will be one of their strategies.

So on a smaller scale, Fraser is right. "Journey to the Center of the Earth" gives us a glimpse of where the movies are headed. Ironically, it does so by looking to the past for a story that, it turns out, still offers plenty of entertainment.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.