Compared to the original Escape to Witch Mountain, this one is heavy on the action and light on emotion.

James Plath's picture

"Race to Witch Mountain" comes to HD-lovers as a Disney 3-pack: Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy. Yes, I've seen the complaints on the message boards--"Why should I pay for something I don't want or need?"--but while "want" is one thing, the issue of "need" is still a little unclear, as far as I'm concerned. Digital technology is so fluid right now that you'd have to be a clairvoyant to decide which medium (if any) survives. I personally think it's brilliant that Disney is offering consumers an all-in-one package that gives them three shots at a surviving medium, including the best picture available. Sure, you can buy a single-disc no frills DVD for $29.99, or a double-disc DVD with Digital Copy for $39.99, but if you like this movie it seems like a no-brainer to opt for the Blu-ray/DVD Combo with Digital Copy for five dollars more.

I saw "Race to Witch Mountain" in the theater and gave it a 6 out of 10 when I reviewed it for DVD Town. But I'm always fascinated to watch movies a second time to see whether my initial impression was right-on, or of the movie gets better or worse with repeat viewing. With this one, however loving a tribute it may be to the original Disney movies, I found myself noting the same strengths and weaknesses in a film that remains entertaining enough, but not one that's destined to be a classic. The classic was already produced in 1975, though this remake is certainly better than the "Return from Witch Mountain" 1978 sequel.

The original "Escape to Witch Mountain" had a certain charm to it, though it hardly ranks among the best of the vintage Disney live-action films. Still, it's hard to forget the harmonica that brought inanimate objects to life, and the pacing was such that we got the chance to spend plenty of time with two mysterious orphans who were the focal point. So by the time they're imprisoned by a rich man who wants to exploit their psychic talents, we already feel as if we know these two as much as they do. There are no hidden secrets or agendas, and as the girl tries to understand the flashes back or forward that she keeps having, so do we. We also had the time to appreciate the relationship that develops between a crusty old loner and the kids who stow away on his camper. The plot was pretty simple. They were pursued by the law and by the millionaire who reported them as they tried to get to Witch Mountain, where they had to go for reasons unknown to them and to us. The emphasis was on the why and the mystery of who these kids were and how they came to be on Earth.

There's less mystery and more action in "Race to Witch Mountain," and to me it feels a lot like a theme park ride. You enter a phase of the ride where you perceive in an instant the kind of "thrill" you're in for, and then sit back and watch it happen. For one thing, the kids are dropped in our laps as suddenly as their spacecraft penetrates Earth's gravity and crash-lands somewhere in the Nevada desert (where else?). Everything is up-front. They're aliens with knowledge we mere humans don't possess, as they frequently remind the cab driver who finds them in his back seat with a wad of cash.

You mentally ride along with Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) and his two alien fares Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), whom, unlike the original pair, we know are aliens and we're told in fairly short order what the deal is: there is a faction on their planet that wants to take the easy route and take over earth, and another faction that wants to study earth to see how they can restore their planet to livability. Their mission (and here's where it gets a little muddy) is to retrieve something and return by a certain time, or else an invasion will begin. It's a double-chase narrative: Jack, who takes Eddie Albert's place as the kid's chauffeur, is an ex-con and former driver for a crime boss whose thugs are after him, while the kids are pursued by a bureaucrat named Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds) and government agents who want to dissect them, as well as an intergalactic assassin who wants to make sure the invasion proceeds.

The minute the kids get into the cab with this savvy driver and his past, you pretty much know that Jack will get the chance to show his stunt-driving skills. Likewise, when you pull up to an old abandoned building in the middle of the desert and the kids use one of their alien gizmos to enter a refrigerator, Jack says, "Don't go in the pimped-out refrigerator, Jack." But of course he does, and we follow. Underground is a cavernous set that looks like it recycled props from "Lost in Space" and "Cocoon," and the minute we go inside you know that there's going to be another thrill ride of some sort. When we see the alien assassin shows up at a UFO/sci-fi convention, we know we're going to get a scene straight out of "GalaxyQuest" in which the audience thinks the real thing is part of the show. That's the feel that "Race to Witch Mountain" has. It's being strapped into a car that takes you here and there to "experience" things, and yet despite the formula and staging it's still somehow fun to watch.

In my theatrical review, I said that I was underwhelmed by too many of the effects. It wasn't as if the original 1975 "Escape to Witch Mountain" was so hard to beat, either. It's just that the car chases in this new version had that "been there, crashed it before" look to it, while the "Predator"-like bounty hunter seemed as if he'd pulled a Mel Brooks and wandered from one movie back-lot onto another. And call me old-fashioned, but I kind of liked the original version with kids that had a certain amount of warmth to them. These alien kids are themselves a bit robotic for my tastes. I had the same reaction the second time around. Same with my observation that the comedy was a welcome sight, and I frankly wish there were more of it. When the trio gets back to Las Vegas again and interacts with whack-jobs at the UFO/sci-fi convention (two Imperial storm troopers are a riot), the action picks up. It's the same when they pick up a serious scientist who believes in UFOs (Carla Gugino as Dr. Alex Friedman) and get the help of a charlatan who's made a good living by monitoring the data sent him by people who believe in UFOs (Garry Marshall). It's not so much that the extra bodies help, but the script deepens a bit and also, ironically, lightens up.

I'm no great fan of action scenes where jerky camerawork and quick cuts substitute for dynamite special effects, and too often I felt that director Andy Fickman ("The Game Plan," "She's the Man") relied on these cheap tricks. Then again, this was the first non-comedic feature film that he directed, just as it was the first non-comedic feature film written by Matt Lopez ("Bedtime Stories," "The Wild")--which is probably why Mark Bomback ("Live Free or Die Hard") was brought in to co-write the action stuff. It's probably no coincidence that some of the most successful scenes in "Race to Witch Mountain" are comedic. The action picks up near the end of the second act, and things get as thrilling as you begin thinking they should have seemed all along.

As family films go, it also steers a pretty straight course. There's no foul language to speak of, no attitude, no blood or gore, and really no excessive violence. Some moments of peril are included, naturally, but even those are handled tastefully. Johnson has outgrown his nickname ("The Rock") and seems to have found a comfortable home at the House of Mouse. He plays well off children--even robotic ones--and fits the mold of a nice-guy action-hero in a film that's as wholesome as can be. Marshall is a laugh-riot as Dr. Donald Harlan, and Gugino holds her own in two-shots with Johnson. Look for original "Witch Mountain" stars Richards and Eisenmann as a waitress and sheriff in a local diner--just another nice touch that makes the film fun. But the rationale for the children's situation made more sense in the 1975 film. If only they had told that Predator dude to go back to the right set . . . .

Except for the Vegas convention scenes and the shots inside the "Lost in Space" set, the sequences in "Race to Witch Mountain" are bathed in low light or shadows--not exactly the kind of visuals that were made for HD. I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a BD-50 disc, and in close-ups and those color-burst scenes you can really appreciate the High Definition. But for most of the film the "wow" factor is missing.

The sonics are a little more solid. Then again, action drives this film, and FX and a blustery soundtrack help sell the action. All the channels get full use, with plenty of rear-speaker action. It's a nice mix, too, because the dialogue doesn't get lost in the increased-volume FX. The bass doesn't rumble as much as I would have thought, and the soundtrack could have been a little more dynamic insomuch as the sound too often hung close to the speakers, but overall it's a nice presentation.

Surprisingly, for a fat little three-disc set there isn't much in the way of bonus features. There are 23 minutes of deleted scenes (nine of them), including an extended goodbye, with Fickman introducing. Then there's a roughly three-minute blooper reel, and an eight-minute feature with Fickman explaining the "Easter Eggs" in the film-that is, references and homages to the originals. Clips from the early Disney movies and this film illustrate his points, and fans will probably find this brief feature the most useful. I picked up on the fact that a female reporter was named Natalie Gann (an allusion to the Disney live-action movie "The Journey of Natty Gann"), but I didn't realize that Fickman got the actual actress who played Natty Gann to play the journalist. Little things like that are fun to watch.

Then, of course, there's the DVD and Digital Copy discs.

Bottom Line:
If you go by Hollywood, the latest in family values is action. Family films are full of it, but I wish that the action would be balanced by a little more character development and heart. No one is going to get misty eyed ever again in theaters if films keep going in the direction of constant motion, with no envelopes of space left for audiences to reflect. Compared to the original "Escape to Witch Mountain," this one is heavy on the action and light on emotion. But it still beats the campy/clunky "Return to Witch Mountain." Even without the Storm Troopers.


Film Value