From the first frames, when a crabby trilobite waves its antennae over the audience, poking viewers in the eyes and provoking epithets of delighted revulsion, Journey to the Center of the Earth delivers the 3D goods. We take a rollicking roller-coaster ride into the bowels of the earth, free-fall thousands of miles into a primordial lagoon, battle giant piranhas, man-eating plants and a myopic T-Rex, then blast back to the known world atop a G-force geyser…with brief pauses, of course, for romance and male bonding.

Many moviegoers, unfortunately, will have to settle for digital 2D, missing a lot of what makes this film fun, although VFX expert-turned-director Eric Brevig handles the action with élan and writers Michael Weiss, Jennifer Flackett and Mark Levin capture the cheeky style of classic adventure serials. Journey is a well-made, high-spirited movie that (rare indeed) never takes itself too seriously, a perfect summer escape that (surely unintentionally) puts a whole new spin on global warming. Effects supervisor Christopher Townsend melds cutting-edge technology with tried-and-true production design by David Sandefur: The biofluorescent birds, four-story mushrooms and floating magnetic rocks will delight in any dimension.

Wisely, the filmmakers borrow what they need from Jules Verne’s novel but toss out the book’s plot; this Journey is homage, not adaptation. Trevor Anderson (Brendan Fraser), a nerdy research scientist studying plate tectonics, is obsessed with the theories of his late brother Max, who went missing while exploring volcanic passages in Iceland. Max believed Verne had recorded an actual expedition in Journey, keeping detailed notes in his dog-eared copy of the novel that, Trevor suddenly realizes, serve as a road map to the Earth’s core.

Timing is everything, so Trevor drags his vacationing nephew Sean (Josh Hutcherson) with him to the igneous no-man’s land where Max disappeared, hoping to recover an instrument containing crucial seismic data. To get there, he hires a local guide, Hannah (Anita Briem), who also happens to be the daughter of Max’s colleague and fellow Vernian (as true believers are called). Freak lightning (the first of many charmingly improbable plot devices) induces an avalanche that traps the hiking party in a cave. You can take it from here but for the geological record: In their efforts to find a way out, they dig themselves into deep schist, only to discover that Max was oh so right.

Fraser, Hutcherson and Briem show lots of spelunk as they repel, crawl and (suspended on a raft of disbelief) sail their way across a sulfurous sea to the center of the planet. They are, all three, merrily insouciant, and their old-fashioned can-do attitude is infectious. You’ll leave the theatre with a smile as wide as a grinning Tyrannosaurus.