The first of what would be countless screen adaptations of this Jules Verne story, this 1959 version of Journey to the Center of the Earth offers some unique sights from its sets, although not much else. Its stand-in iguana dinosaurs, plodding pace, and cardboard characters do little to make audiences want to take this journey with them.
The opening hour, with a lackluster set up and extended scenes of exposition, fail to generate enthusiasm. Excitement drummed up by James Mason’s performance is energetic, if all for naught. Dialogue is simply dull and drags the pacing down with it.
By the time they begin the actual quest, what enthusiasm the audience has left is helped along by the extravagant visuals. Set design is constantly different in terms of color and scope. There’s always something to feast your eyes on, or a convenient item that helps them survive this nearly year long journey (with the same clothes on the whole way… eww).
The movie’s villain is tossed on screen for brief periods, introduced to the viewer too late, and then does little with his actual time interacting with his rivals. It’s this type of character development that drags the movie down (along with the pacing).
Any scientific explanation is limited, and while it’s all fantastic, what is offered is fun. It’s a shame they didn’t stick with the usual ‘50s routine of giving a reason for all that happens. Still, the sights are enough to draw the viewer into this world within the world, even if none if makes sense.
Visual effects are mostly strong, loaded with matte paintings to increase the scope. No shots are missed or go wrong for the special effects crew. However, Fox took the cheap route with the monsters/dinosaurs, using the miserable dressed up iguanas and skinks in place of other styles. It fails.
Cutting a half hour from the script would have been welcome, and given the little information gained from much of it, nothing would have harmed the film. There’s literally a scene where the cast holds a jury trial to convict one of their own that is not only nonsensical, it takes a while to get through and offers only mild character traits. There’s enough to recommend this take on the story (certainly more so than many of the remakes), but be prepared for a wait before reaching what you came to see.