The action has two more dimensions than the hero.

The 1990s were the CGI decade. Pioneering computer technology made a new type of film possible, and Hollywood pummeled us with films loaded with visual effects just because it could.
It wasn't until Steven Spielberg created his dinosaurs and Pixar gave birth to Buzz and Woody that we began to see what was really possible; that is, it wasn't until filmmakers used the technology to enhance an already well-developed story that we finally saw films worth watching.

Let's hope Hollywood's blind, uninteresting fling with digital 3-D won't take as long to deepen into something more meaningful.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is the first live-action, feature-length movie to be shot in digital 3-D, assuming you don't count last year's Hannah Montana concert film as a movie. (I know I don't.)

Jules Verne's classic, oft-filmed sci-fi fantasy once again has inspired the family-film industry, although in this incarnation modern-day seismic scientist Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser) uses the novel itself as a map to finding the center of the earth.

Those of you who may have seen the gem Gods and Monsters know, as I do, that Brendan Fraser can act. We've seen him act. He's just not doing it here. Rather, this square-faced king of the reaction shot mugs, rolls his eyes and feigns nervousness, all the while tossing out inoffensive one-liners and boxing Venus flytraps. (Don't worry if you miss it here; you can always catch the exact same act later in the summer when his Mummy series returns.)

On what could hardly be considered a well-thought-out family outing, Anderson drags along his nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) and an Icelandic mountain guide (Anita Briem) on his treacherous expedition below the Earth's surface.

Hutcherson gives the role an honest try, but the paper-thin character allows little room to work, and characterization takes such a backseat to the technology that his efforts don't result in much. For her part,

Briem comes across as a sort of tiny Viking warrior queen, which feels both fitting and bizarre. But basically all three actors are simply present to give us something to use for scale in front of the green screen.

Journey to the Center of the Earth was made by Walden Media, a family-friendly group that films ecologically conscious children's and adolescent literature (Nim's Island, Hoot), generally with the aim of making wholesome, thoughtful entertainment. But the company's more specific goal with this particular project seemed clear when it chose Eric Brevig to direct.

This two-time visual-effects Oscar nominee had a single directing credit to his name before taking on Journey, and that was for an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. Maybe I'm being shortsighted-maybe it was a really great episode-but my guess is that the studio preferred to put its money behind the 3-D aspect of the film rather than, say, the acting, writing and directing. And it shows.

Unfortunately, the 3-D doesn't really pay off, either. Much of the material was developed by a group best known for theme-park rides, which may be why the entire film feels like my last Orlando vacation.

If this film is any indication, Hollywood still hasn't figured out what to do with 3-D. Or, for that matter, Brendan Fraser.

Hope Madden

Rating: **