One of the most popular Disney films of its era, Escape to Witch Mountain only loosely follows Alexander Key’s comparatively dark original tale about a pair of troubled orphans escaping a grim juvenile-hall orphanage and a sinister pursuer with the help of a heroic Catholic priest.
In the meandering film version, Tony and Tia (Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann) are model citizens, the orphanage is a cheerful place, and even the villains woo the siblings with palatial luxuries stuffed with playthings and animals. Regrettably, Father O’Day, the novel’s savvy, stand-up priest, has been replaced by Jason O’Day (Eddie Albert), a crusty-but-lovable widower driving a Winnebago motor home. Also omitted is a kind but sickly nun who gives the children an important clue regarding their origins.
Tony uses his powers pretty freely from the start, levitating a dozen feet in the air to catch a fly ball and then defending himself against a pint-sized bully named Truck (much less menacing than his shiv-wielding literary counterpart) with a floating bat and glove in full view of the other orphans. “You should have let him win, Tony,” Tia remonstrates with him later. (Well, no, what he should have done was stay on the ground and let Truck have the home run he deserved.)
The scene is really about wish fulfillment, which I guess is a key part of the appeal of the whole premise. This carries over into the kids-versus-adults storyline as a wealthy recluse named Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland) and his even-tempered henchman Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasence) seek to exploit the children’s powers, aided at one point by a complacent sheriff (Walter Barnes) who detains the children for a promised reward. In spite of this, the film is ultimately curiously stingy with the kids’ powers, which you’d think would be the point.
What exactly do the villains want the children for? As in the book, it isn’t clearly explained, but Bolt is clearly interested in the paranormal, especially knowledge of the future. (An astrologer and a psychic briefly appear in his employ, but are mocked as useless.) The villains consider the siblings “psychic,” though the climax confirms that their powers are sci-fi rather than pseudo-spiritual.
Escape to Witch Mountain is no great shakes, but the kids are likable and Albert is entertaining. It’s pleasant enough, but underwhelming, and curiously lacking in wonder, even in the high-flying finale.
Better structured and faster-moving than its predecessor, the sequel has more energy and wit in one sequence — the gold theft at the museum, in which a rolling stagecoach and floating manniquins evoke scenes from a Western — than all the special effects in the first movie combined.
Rather than a coming of age story, then, Race to Witch Mountain is a dark family action-adventure movie, with moderate doses of X-Files paranoia and Galaxy Quest sci-fi fandom satire, and a sometimes obnoxious rock soundtrack. It’s slicker, darker and funnier than the original films, though wall-to-wall action makes it a bit of a one-trick pony, and prevents the characters from catching their breath and displaying more than one side.
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Very interesting reviews. I must admit, I expected you to give Escape to Witch Mountain a higher review than Return from Witch Mountain, but of course, I haven’t read the books.
To tell you the truth, I saw them both when I was 14 or so, and I thought Escape was a great little film. It had all the elements of a great kids’ movie and all the elements to keep a teenager or even adult interested for a sustained amount of time. The story was interesting, the characters were likable, and the effects were well done (if underused like you mentioned).
However, I was bitterly disappointed with Return. Mainly I didn’t like it for the overall cheesiness and silliness that you mentioned in your review. Where Escape was engaging and entertaining, Return was merely silly. Whenever the plot turned to the street gang of rejects from “The Little Rascals,” I cringed. It was a little better when the plot turned to Christopher Lee and his mind control device, but it still felt cheesy and cliched. It had great effects, but that couldn’t save what is exclusively a kiddie film.
I haven’t seen Race to Witch Mountain as of yet, but I plan to in the near future, although I have mixed feelings about it. When I first heard about Race, I though, “Oh boy, another Witch Mountain sequel, maybe this one will redeem that awful Return movie.” But after seeing the trailer, I realized that it wasn’t a sequel, it wasn’t even a remake, it was a reboot. Okay, so I could go with reboot, as long as it’s done well. The Day the Earth Stood Still had an interesting reboot (really remake in that case) that couldn’t touch the original but still took the story in an intriguing direction.
But something didn’t feel right about the trailer for Race; you know at once that they’re aliens (which was the whole point of Escape, and was one of the things that film so great was the journey of discovery). With the kids’ new powers, why do they even need a taxi driver to help them? If they can walk into cars and bullets bounce right off them, why would government officials be a problem? The powers Tony and Tia possessed had limits and made them more relatable, but Sara and Seth seem almost indestructible and distant. As a cheap action flick, Race seems okay. But not having read the books, it seems that the original Escape hasn’t been beaten.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.