The 1970's television series Land of the Lost was ripe for hilarious parody. If a screen adaptation was produced that poked fun at the series and the low-budget, stop-motion genre, a gem would be imminent. However, as it is, 2009's Land of the Lost is just a lightweight adventure in the form of a standard Will Ferrell movie. Throughout the feature, Ferrell's character runs from things and screams, and between these sequences he's engaging in semi-improvisational speeches designed to make himself look like a moron. One can watch Ferrell doing the aforementioned in literally any movie in which he features, so why would anyone want to see him repeat his same old routine under the guise of a cinematic reimagining of a '70s TV show? From the outset, it's unclear who this movie was meant to be pitched to. Was the aim to introduce the show's campy zest to a new generation of children? Or appeal to the now adult fans of the show with a combination of cheesy nostalgia and postmodern mockery? Unwisely, Land of the Lost tries to be both; peppering the story's juvenile antics with smutty adult humour. That said, it at least makes the cut in the dumb but fun department, and it's still watchable.
In the TV series, a father and his two children on a rafting trip become sucked into a portal which teleports them to an alternate universe that fuses elements of the past (namely dinosaurs) with elements of fantasy and science fiction. This fundamental concept remains in the movie adaptation, but rather than a family of protagonists there's an unlikely trio of mere acquaintances - Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell), Holly (Friel), and Will (McBride) - who plunge into an alternate universe as the result of Rick's invention, a "Tachyon Amplifier", which was the cause of his banishment from mainstream science several years prior (following a career-ending appearance on The Today Show with Matt Lauer (who gamely played an extra-glib version of himself)).
Once in this alternate dimension, the protagonists forge a tenuous friendship with a primate named Chaka (Taccone), and encounter the kind of scenarios that the two screenwriters (Dennis McNicholas and Chris Hench) were able to conceive when given $100 million to play with - namely, loosely connected skits tailored to the improvisatory skills and free-wheeling talents of the primary stars. There are rampaging dinosaurs, fast-crawling bugs, a race of lizard people (called the Sleestaks) and an assortment of cultural signifiers from different eras of human history (a Viking Ship, the Golden Gate Bridge, a roadside motel) scattered throughout the desert. Those involved with the production preserve creature designs and locations from the original series, as well as adding the occasional inside joke to please old fans. But the inconsistent quality of the special effects is jarring. The Sleestaks, for example, look very phoney, and the sets frequently look goofy. This is all well and good, since it's an obvious homage to the low-budget origins of the show. So why is it, then, that the dinosaurs were brought to life with state-of-the-art CGI? Early in the movie, Matt Lauer asks Rick Marshall in disbelief "You've spent $50 million studying time warps?". Meanwhile, the filmmakers blew $100 million making this motion picture when it could've been produced for half that amount to better effect.
Contrary to common sense, Land of the Lost is absolutely not for children. Perplexingly, the filmmakers elected the hard PG-13/borderline R-rated route. Sex jokes, abrasive profanities, vulgarities, breast grabs, drug-induced hazes and a few expected bits of rather graphic violence are all incorporated into the film; imparting a darker edge to the material that's foreign to the franchise. It'd be one thing to fully commit to a gross-out, hilariously violent, curse-ridden R-rated send-up of the television program, but the filmmakers seem afraid to pursue this. The alienating approach they end up taking will most likely charm teenagers and young couples who enjoy such films as Anchorman or Talladega Nights, but it will appeal to very few others. Admittedly, there are several amusing moments scattered throughout Land of the Lost. A few one-liners delivered by McBride and Ferrell, which feel improvisational, at least achieve chuckles. The fact that this cast is better suited to a vulgar comedy environment and that the raunchiness affords the best comedic moments is compelling evidence that the filmmakers should have selected the R rating option.
Director Brad Silberling - who was responsible for the 2004 screen adaptation of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events - serves up a wonderful visual feast, supported by the efforts of production designer Bo Welch. A peculiar universe has been accomplished here, so it's a shame that the movie built around it isn't up to standard. Another key problem with Land of the Lost is that of unbelievably sloppy filmmaking. The editing in particular is simply ghastly. For instance, whenever the Tyrannosaurus Rex is chasing the characters, the spatial relationships are a mess. One moment the T-Rex is within biting distance of the characters...then in the following shot the characters have magically jumped forward about 10 or 20 metres. In a scene towards the climax, Marshall and Will rescue Holly from about eight or nine Sleestaks...they end up dispatching three or four, and suddenly they're all gone. Do the filmmakers assume we're not paying attention?
It's possible to see the flop-sweat of desperation on Will Ferrell's forehead as he battles to mine laughs from this barren screenplay. However Ferrell's ability to play self-deluded and conceited is admittedly somewhat amusing. Danny McBride has his moments and happily pings off Ferrell, while Anna Friel delivers a pretty stoic performance as the scientist incarnation of Lara Croft...which is all the script asks of her. The only other member of the cast worth mentioning is Leonard Nimoy, who is given a cameo.
Land of the Lost has its pleasures - the always-charming Anna Friel in small outfits, a few funny Will Ferrell moments - but it's ultimately forgettable and uneven. It's too schlocky and adult-minded in its humour for a family audience, but too dumb in its broad strokes to appeal to adults. To its credit, though, it's still enjoyable fluff, and it qualifies as one of the trippiest movies of the 2009 summer season - think the prehistoric version of Anchorman as written by Hunter S. Thompson...except it's no-where near as awesome as that sounds.