Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones take to the digitally fabricated skies in “The Aeronauts.” (Amazon Studios)

Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones take to the digitally fabricated skies in “The Aeronauts.” (Amazon Studios)

‘The Aeronauts’: Heavy on digital effects, light on reality

The best way to enjoy this movie, about intrepid balloonists in 1862, is as a kiddie pop-up book.

If you’re going to have digital effects, why not use them for a movie like “The Aeronauts”? Here’s a film with no dragons or hobbits or superheroes — but its celebration of a scientific feat would not be possible using practical (that is to say, real-life) effects.

We’re up, up in the air in 1862, as a pioneering meteorologist, James Glaisher (Eddie Redmayne), seeks information from the upper atmosphere. He’ll take a hot-air balloon higher than anyone has previously gone, all in search of weather-predicting information.

Glaisher really existed. Not so his movie balloon-mate, Amelia Wren (Felicity Jones), a feisty, publicity-savvy pilot who knows more about the mechanics of flight than Glaisher does.

She’s a fictional creation, although there were female aeronauts in the 19th century. “The Aeronauts” settles for high adventure rather than accurate history, and if you can accept the pumped-up heroics, it plays fine as a family-friendly escapade.

Allowing for a few flashbacks, the story takes place in a single day. The two balloonists lift off before a skeptical London crowd and ascend quickly into … a storm.

Hmm, well, the point of the flight is to improve weather predictions, so maybe these two atmospheric explorers can be forgiven for floating right into a cascade of lightning bolts.

Once above the fury, they take measurements, marvel at the clouds below and disagree about how high they can climb before thin air and freezing temperatures begin to impair their judgment.

None of this is believable, regardless of the shreds of historical fact that remain. Things really go over the top — literally — when our heroine must clamber up the side of the balloon to fix a frozen widget. Cruising altitude: higher than Mount Everest.

By this time you’ve realized that the best thing to do with “The Aeronauts” is sit back and enjoy all the Jules Verne steampunkery. The toothy chemistry between Jones and Redmayne (previously co-stars in “The Theory of Everything”) is easy to take, too.

When not looking directly at those two, director Tom Harper (“Wild Rose”) is essentially making an animated film. The environments around James and Amelia are mostly created on computer, and they appear thoroughly unreal — which is not a big problem if you approach the movie as a children’s pop-up book, full of billowy clouds and fanciful landscapes.

If you want the actual story of the balloon experiment, you’ll have to look it up. “The Aeronauts” is about the pluckiest female heroine this side of a “Star Wars” picture; she’s roughly as historical as Indiana Jones, with whom she shares scientific curiosity and the ability to precariously dangle from great heights.

“The Aeronauts” (2½ stars)

A digital-effects heavy account of two balloonists (Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne) who go aloft for science in 1862. The film is only slightly connected to historical reality, but it conjures up some family-friendly adventure in its preposterous story.

Rating: PG-13, for subject matter

Opening Friday: Varsity, Seattle. Streaming on Amazon Prime Video starting Dec. 20.

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