There's an interesting bit of product placement in the new updated cinematic version of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" — the original 1864 novel by Jules Verne.

If ever there was a movie that urges kids to read books, it's this one.

In fact, the film's youngest hero (Josh Hutcherson) repeatedly laments that he never got around to "Journey to the Center of the Earth" when it was a summer-reading assignment.

The movie spins off the premise that the book was not a novel but a chronicle of real-life experiences, as advocated by a cult of believers known as "Vernians."

Thus, this 21st century "Journey to the Center of the Earth" is neither an adaptation of the book nor a remake of the 1959 movie (later remade a couple of times for TV).

Actually, there are so many cliffhangers that Harrison Ford should be starring. "Indiana Jones at the Center of the Earth," perhaps?

There's even a mine-car thrill ride that suspiciously resembles the one in "Temple of Doom." Look for it soon at a theme park near you.

There's also a riff on "Jurassic Park." Maybe Steven Spielberg should get a piece of the action.

But at its, um, "center," is Brendan Fraser (where's he been?), who makes a decidedly more hapless hero than Ford — running and screaming and cracking wise in a way that may remind you of his "Mummy" flicks. (He'll also be running and screaming and cracking wise in yet another "Mummy" movie two weeks from today.)

This "Journey to the Center of the Earth" actually features the book as a character of sorts, a guide to the adventures encountered by the film's intrepid trio (Fraser, Hutcherson and Anita Briem).

The book contains Vernian notations that lead the way to a little-explored world where they meet up with fluorescent bluebirds, a T. rex ("with skin," as Fraser notes), leaping mutant piranhas and weather that may have you wondering if Al Gore has been underground lately.

And to top it off, it's in 3-D ... in selected theaters, that is. In one of those twists of fate that has history repeating itself, the latest in film technology isn't available everywhere because many theaters aren't quite up to speed.

The same thing happened when sound debuted. And CinemaScope. And stereo. And 3-D ... the first time! A lot of theaters weren't prepared when those innovations (gimmicks?) surfaced, either.

If you want to understand why birds fly toward the camera, why floating rocks drift toward the audience or why we see someone spit water toward the screen (twice!), you really should seek out a 3-D screening. (Although you'll also pay more for the ticket.)

And before we get too picky about how the dialogue and plotting could be wittier and the characters could use some embellishing, let's remember that this is a kids film.

Hollywood is aiming "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" (based on a doll) squarely at young girls and "Journey to the Center of the Earth" (based on a book) squarely at young boys. (Although girls will enjoy "Journey" and boys will enjoy "Kit.")

Both are better for youngsters than the myriad movies based on video games and comics.

You do remember books, right? Words typeset on paper? They tell stories? They're shelved in libraries?

Just think of them as old-school wikis.


E-mail: hicks@desnews.com