RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (2009)
Starring Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Everett Scott, Christopher Marquette, Billy Brown, Garry Marshall, Cheech Marin, Kim Richards and Iake Eissinman.
Screenplay by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback.
Directed by Andy Fickman.
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. 99 minutes. Rated PG.
If you want to see how much the world has changed over the last few decades, all you have to do is compare this movie with Escape from Witch Mountain – the 1975 Disney film which “inspired” it.
As suggested by the title change, compared to Race, Escape is incredibly slow moving. That film’s idea of cool special effects was dancing puppets and a flying Winnebago. This movie has spaceships, car crashes, submachine gun fire and alien assassins. That film’s idea of a protective adult figure was Eddie Albert. Here it is The Rock. (Oh, sorry – Dwayne Johnson – he seems to have totally dumped his wrestling name.) In Escape, two alien children were around ten and trying to make their way back home. In Race, they are teens who are SAVING THE EARTH! In Escape, the bad guys were businessmen and rednecks. Here they are the federal government and an alien assassin. The kids even traded up from a magic cat to a magic dog.
However, being busier and having more special effects does not necessarily make the new movie better than its predecessor. Now it is just hardwired with thrills for the PlayStation generation. When the first film came out, Pong was state-of-the-art. Things moved slower back then and may have made you think a little more rather than just react.
Now it is all about lights, sound, special effects, and gunfire – but in a cartoonish enough manner that the film’s target audience, kids and young teens, will not be scarred by the experience. It is action-light, with quips defusing explosions. As a matter of fact, the alien kids are sort of supporting players in their own story here. Race to Witch Mountain is less interested in our interplanetary visitors than it is in trying to position Johnson as a force in family-friendly comedies.
Of course, this makes me feel a knee-jerk reaction to remind Disney that tough guys starring in kids’ films are almost never a good idea. Do we really need to remind them of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way, Hulk Hogan in Mr. Nanny, or Vin Diesel in The Pacifier? Or for that matter, even Johnson’s weak The Game Plan, which was directed by the same journeyman who has helmed this film?
That said – yes, Race to Witch Mountain is entertaining on its own imperfect level.
The Rock… sorry Johnson, I still can’t get used to him having a real name… has a likeable comic presence and is obviously a talented stunt performer. No, he really can’t pull off serious dramatic moments, but the film doesn’t burden him with much heavy lifting.
The alien teens are somewhat underutilized – AnnaSophia Robb in particular is way too talented an actress for this one note role. Speaking of good actresses who are completely wasted, Carla Gugino is given so little to do as a professor who teaches the science of UFOs that she disappears from the film for huge chunks of time, and you really don’t notice she is no longer there. Garry Marshall has his normal good time as a rival UFO hunter – he isn’t doing anything different here than he has in any other film or television role he has ever played, but he does have his persona nailed.
Plus, the grown-up original Escape kids, Kim Richards and Iake Eissinman (as a kid actor, he had Anglicized his name to Ike Eisenman) do good-natured (if dramatically a bit broad) cameos as the world’s most helpful cocktail waitress and a local sheriff with control issues.
I doubt that small children who see Race to Witch Mountain now will hold it in such high regard as people of my age group hold the original, but it mostly gets the job done as a fast-paced, rather funny, somewhat violent goof.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 15, 2009.