Race to Witch Mountain, opening Friday, is clearly a product of
Hollywood’s love for revisiting successful properties. It’s a remake of the popular 1975 Disney movie (which stared Iake Eissinmann, Kim
Richards, Eddie Albert, Ray Milland, and Donald Pleasence), based on a book of the same name. There were two sequels to the first film, the second being the pilot for a TV show that was never picked up, and another remake in 1995.
This version of the story departs pretty widely from the original. Rather than being orphans who only realize they are aliens partway through, the kids Seth and Sara (Alexander
Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb) know who they are from the outset. They are aliens, they came to earth to pick up something important that their parents left behind, they crash landed (alerting all the bad MIB
people), and are being chased by a ruthless assassin out to stop them and facilitate the eventual takeover of our planet. It almost seems like fate that they’d sneak into Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson’s cab looking for a lift.
If this hadn’t been a Disney family film, trimmed to 90 minutes because studio executives don’t think audiences have the attention span for anything longer, there might have been a bit more character development, especially for Johnson’s Jack Bruno. In what may be a first for such a kid-focused Disney film, our action-hero protagonist is an ex-con. Bruno used to be a driver and tough guy for a Las Vegas crime boss. After a stint in the slammer, he’s trying to go straight, but his former coworkers want to suck him back into the business. Too bad Jack didn’t think to move away from Vegas to start his new, clean life.
Geek-favorite Carla Cugino comes along for the ride as the discredited, but serious astrophysicist Dr. Alex
Friedman, trying to preach hard science to the stereotypical foil-hatted loonies at a sci-fi convention (look for some knowing winks to the con community here – Tron guy, and a cameo by famed Communion author Whitley Strieber). And the ever-amusing Gary Marshall shows up as one of the leading loonies, but ultimately provides the information and the ride (an old Winnebago, another hat-tip to the original movie)
that ultimately gets them to their final destination.
As a fan of the original, it was hard to sit through this movie without picking up on the little connections to the original film. Probably the best is a scene midway in where Bruno and the Kids are on the run from the government and need their car fixed. They drop it off at a small town garage (run by Cheech Marin, obviously still under contract), and head over to the local watering hole, where they are served by a friendly waitress played by original Witch Mountain actress, Richards. While the kids clean up, Bruno gets nervous when the local sheriff (the other original kid, Eissinmann) and his deputies come in for dinner. Indeed, out of everyone in this movie, Eissenmann seems the most at ease in his character, and gets the audience really rooting for his small-town lawman when he stands up to the overbearing MIB leader.
Special geek trivia: Eissinman has extra geek cred for having played Cadet
Peter Preston, Scotty’s nephew, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, a brief but dramatic part that was rumored to have been significantly left on the cutting room floor.
Critically speaking, this is not high art. The writing is basic, and even embarrassingly expositive at times (there is a scene where Johnson and Cugino’s characters, thrown together by crisis, finally have a moment to talk – and they each explain their backgrounds and personalities to the other in a very desultory fashion; how convenient). The editing cuts so quickly sometimes, it’s hard to get a real sense of the action. And the special effects look like they could have been done at home on a Macbook.
Also, the alien assassin – called a Siphon – is so heavily modeled off Anubis’ Super
Soldier from Stargate SG-1 that one has to wonder if Witch Mountain’s producers were the successful bidders when that show’s props and costumes were auctioned off.
But if my younger son and a preview audience packed with tweens and younger kids are any indicator, Race to
Witch Mountain does what it sets out to do. It’s a fun action-adventure with super-powered kids and lots of explosions and gadgets, and the audience had a fun time (when asked what his grade for it was, my son enthusiastically said "A+"). Take your kids to a matinee for an afternoon of fun, and then go home and find the original on Netflix for a more sentimental journey to Witch Mountain.
Wired: Good kid actors, nice homages to the original.
Tired: Low-budget remake with mediocre editing and effects.
Disney / Opens Friday, March 13th