Alien invasion? Predator-style bounty hunters? You won't find them here, in the original "Escape to Witch Mountain" (1975). Judging from the trailer, the new "Race to Space Mountain" has considerably more action and special effects too. But the original still has its charms and manages to hold the interest of youngsters today, even without the extreme treatment. Buy the classic and you also get a free movie ticket (up to $12 value) to see the new incarnation starring Dwayne Johnson.
The special effects in this one--like a flying Winnebago camper and flying saucer, along with all sorts of levitating objects--hover halfway between hokey and impressive, which is to say they're not so bad they're laughable, and they're not so good that you go wow. They're just good enough to sustain the illusion that these two "different" kids at the orphanage may really be from another planet.
Ike Eisenmann plays Tony Malone and Kim Richards ("Nanny and the Professor") his sister, Tia, whose powers include molecular reconstruction, clairvoyance, anti-gravity levitation, the ability to communicate with animals, and telekinesis--the latter of which is often performed with the help of (believe it or not) a harmonica. As Disney live-action goes, "Escape to Witch Mountain" is more than respectable. In the '70s, the roster of Disney live-action movies included as many forgettable titles as memorable ones--films like "Scandalous John," "The Million Dollar Duck," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "The Biscuit Eater," "Now You See Him, Now You Don't," "Snowball Express," "The World's Greatest Athlete," "Charley and the Angel," "One Little Indian," "The Boatniks," "Superdad," "The Castaway Cowboy," and "The Strongest Man in the World," "No Deposit, No Return," "Gus," "The Shaggy D.A.," "Freaky Friday," "Pete's Dragon," "Candleshoe," "The Apple Dumpling Gang," and a couple of Herbie sequels. In that company, it's easy to see why "Escape to Witch Mountain" quickly became a beloved family classic. Instead of the silliness and stock comedic villains there was Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland), a mega-rich man living on the California coast in a gated estate that extends for miles. His right-hand man is Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasence), who sets the plot in motion when he's told by the children on an orphanage field trip not to get in his limo. They know something, and a part of him is unsettled enough to tell the chauffeur he'll take a walk instead. Moments later, an out-of-control vehicle slams into the car, right where he would have been sitting.
It turns out that Deranian has been on the lookout for powers such as these--clairvoyance, especially--because his employer is obsessed with them, not out of a madman's desire to control the world, but because of a rich man's desire for more. Writer Robert M. Young manages to rise above his TV background to give us a screenplay that maintains an effective tension and balances the seriousness of the children's situation with humor by staying away from cheap laughs that come from characters. Instead, any laughs come as a result of the children's stunts, as when they break out of a jail mid-way through the film by "deputizing" a coat rack that, with a little harmonica-playing, turns into an assailant that provides the diversion they need to escape. No guns, no violence--just a scarecrow-like inanimate object brought to life that slaps the heck out of a bewildered sheriff. That's the type of tone that this movie sustains, and it's one big reason why it rises to the top tier of Disney live-action movies from the '70s.
The plot is one that kids can identify with, too. Name me a kid who hasn't fantasized about having powers, or about being given everything they want: a bedroom complex that includes a puppet-show stage, ice cream parlor, and all manner of toys. That's what happens when Deranian shows up at the orphanage with papers that "prove" he's their uncle and should have custody of them. A benevolent-at-first Bolt welcomes them and their black cat, Winky, but when the children aren't forthcoming about sharing how their powers work (and he knows they have them, because he's been monitoring them on closed-circuit TV), he makes it clear that they're going to tell him what they know, no matter what! Once they realize they're prisoners, not guests, the kids bolt themselves and end up hiding in a Winnebago camper driven by a crusty old widower named Jason O'Day (Eddie Albert).
The children have no memory of the life they lived before foster parents took them in, and throughout the film Tia has flashbacks of a disaster at sea that she keeps trying to piece together to figure out who they are, and she carries a "star case" with her that the children figure out contains a map. Reluctant at first but soon parental in his protectiveness, Jason agrees to take them to the place where they believe they will find their true family.
"Escape to Witch Mountain" works for a number of reasons. The script is competent, and director John Hough--who directed another on-the-lam film ("Dirty Mary Crazy Larry") the previous year and who would go on to direct Disney's "The Watcher in the Woods" --manages just the right pacing, never lingering too long in a scene and knowing instinctively what information needs to be highlighted. He also insisted on location filming, which, on a commentary track, he said was unusual for Disney at the time. But perhaps the most important factor, since we spend so much time with the trio, is that the kid characters are likable. So is their Winnebago-driving friend. Put it all together and it makes for one of the most memorable Disney live-action films to come out of the '70s.
For a catalog title, "Escape to Witch Mountain" looks great digitally mastered, presented in 1.75:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 television sets. Colors are natural, and you hardly notice the grain except in a few scenes where there's a great deal of negative space in the backgrounds. Nice transfer.
Audio options are English or French Dolby Digital 5.1, with Spanish and French subtitles. It's an excellent soundtrack that features a bass that tries to break the bonds of flatness that plague many soundtracks from this decade. You might have to turn the volume up higher than usual, though, because it's recorded on a lower level.
For a reissue of a classic title, "Escape to Witch Mountain" comes with a nice bundle of bonus features. A making-of feature shows the director, his two young stars now grown up, and Dermott Downs, who played the kid-bully Truck. The feature is jam-packed with photos and nice vintage video clips (including the Disney studios back lot and shots of Jodie Foster), and there's a nice discussion about the book, the script, and the eventual movie, as well as all manner of recollection and anecdote. It's probably one of the best making-of features I've seen in a long time, because producer-writer Mark Young avoided the easy route of just mixing talking heads with clips from the movie. There was some real research involved here, and the proof is in this 25-minute feature. We even see some of the special effects in behind-the-scenes footage and drawings of some of the models. Great stuff!
The commentary with Hough and his two now-grown stars is also engaging, though the pop-up trivia track overlaps a bit too much and goes too many frames without one of the little saucers popping up to announce another subtitled lesson in behind-the-scenes moviemaking. Another turkey is "Disney Sci-Fi," which is a just over two-minute clip montage from Disney Sci-Fi live action, set to cheesy music. A "1975 Disney Studio Album" is the same thing, but showing clips (including audio) from Disney live-action films from the '70s. Better are the outtakes from Hough's interview for the making-of feature, in which he offers all sorts of advice for would-be writers and filmmakers.
Rounding out the bonus features is "Pluto's Dream House," a House of Mouse cartoon.
"Escape to Witch Mountain" is still great family fun, and for a film that's rated "G" it still has the power to captivate young audiences and old. It's the perfect warm-up for the new "Race to Witch Mountain" film, which promises to take the story to a new level.