Race to Witch Mountain (2009)

C+ SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

Children with paranormal abilities; love of nature; dread of adult ruthlessness; compassionate adults; tense chase sequences; dramatic, paranormal escapes and isolationist communities living apart from ordinary society: These are the hallmarks of the juvenile science fiction of Alexander Key. Nearly all of Key’s novels are now out of print, including his best-known story, Escape to Witch Mountain, which encapsulates all of his characteristic themes, and is the basis for the highly successful 1975 Disney adaptation as well as a theatrical sequel, two made-for-TV follow-ups, and now Race to Witch Mountain.

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Directed by Andy Fickman. Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Everett Scott. Disney.

Artistic/Entertainment Value

Moral/Spiritual Value

0

Age Appropriateness

Kids & Up*

MPAA Rating

PG

Caveat Spectator

Much intense action violence; menace to children.

I first read Escape to Witch Mountain in about the fifth grade, I guess — after the 1975 Disney adaptation had been made, but before I saw it. The story stuck with me, in part, I guess, because in some ways I related to Tony and Tia: I was gifted in my own way, and somewhat isolated from my peers and misunderstood, among other things. (I also really liked the ideas of mental telepathy and telekenesis, but my short-lived experiments with these feats were entirely discouraging and quickly abandoned.)

I mention this to highlight how substantially Race to Witch Mountain departs from its creative roots. Publicity materials call the new film a “modern re-imagining of Key’s book,” and director Andy Fickman has called it “a new chapter within the world of Witch Mountain,” but neither description is really accurate.

Yes, there are still a brother and sister with paranormal abilities (and alliterative names) fleeing from ruthless adults and aided by decent ones. And there are still tense chase sequences, a dramatic paranormal escape and a strange, remote community. There’s still a Witch Mountain — and a Stony Creek — though the Witch Mountain connection is completely different. There’s even a white-haired old man who drives a Winnebago motor home, like the first movie, and a jaded taxi driver with race-car affinities, like the sequel.

However, the focus is no longer on the paranormal siblings, here reduced to supporting characters. Nor does it deal with their exploration of their powers and origins, which are never in doubt — to them. Instead, Race to Witch Mountain is the story of a tough Vegas taxi driver named Jack Bruno (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), whose day takes an unexpected turn toward disaster when a pair of steel-eyed blond children appear in the back seat of his cab.

“We require your transportation services immediately,” the boy says urgently, and the girl helpfully adds, “You require a financial transaction, Jack Bruno. We understand.”

As the rapid-fire, quasi-Vulcan speech patterns suggest, siblings Sara and Seth (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) are not aimless orphan castaways searching for home, but rather strange visitors recently arrived. His profession and stock-car racing past recalls the race-car wanna-be taxi driver from Return to Witch Mountain, but Jack’s disposition — testy and wary of becoming entangled with the children, but ultimately loyal and brave — is more like Eddie Albert’s crusty old Winnebago driver from the original movie. Just with bulging muscles, a lantern jaw and an attitude.

He needs it. Menaced on a remote desert road by a trio of ominous dark SUVs, Jack, an ex-con determined to sever his ties to organized crime, supposes it’s his former life coming back to haunt him. The siblings know there’s more going on, though, and before long display some tricks Tony and Tia never even dreamed of.

They also face greater threats: Besides government pursuers led by Ciarán Hinds, there’s also a faceless, armored alien menace called the Siphon. On the other hand, they’re also aided by disgraced astrophysicist Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino of Watchmen and the Spy Kids franchise), whose views on extraterrestrials have made her persona non grata in the scientific community, and by eccentric UFO convention regular Dr. Harlan (Garry Marshall), who drives a familiar-looking Winnebago.

The plot ultimately requires the heroes to break into a top-secret government facility at Witch Mountain, Arizona, to recover a captured UFO. (In the previous films, Witch Mountain was the site of a secret settlement of Tony and Tia’s people. This change makes it difficult if not impossible to locate the new film in the same world as earlier Witch Mountain stories.)

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, not to mention quite a bit rougher than most of today’s family action films (e.g., Journey to the Center of the Earth). The action is wall-to-wall relentless, making for a one-trick pony movie with no room for the characters to catch their breath and display more than one side.

Seth’s one side is that he is intense and narrow-eyed, and has a withering view of humans. Sara is sensitive and gazes meaningfully through wide eyes, and either wants to tell Jack something extremely important or else just a crush on him. Jack is gruff and fatalistic, and goes the movie dealing with the craziness by tossing off deadpan one-liners for nobody’s benefit but his own.

At times Jack’s wry commentary even defuses some of the movie’s more dubious moments. He does miss a few tricks, though: If Sara can blow up government vehicles to prevent pursuit while fleeing a small-town tavern, why couldn’t she take out the SUVs in the desert road sequence — or even the Siphon’s spaceship? For that matter, if Seth can drop his molecular density to near-zero and phase through solid objects, why is he ever in danger?

Witch Mountain fans will get a kick out of that small-town tavern scene, in which Sara and Seth are aided by a helpful waitress and a quietly self-assured sheriff played by Kim Richards and Iake Eissinmann, the original Tony and Tia. (On another level, second-amendment fans will appreciate a humorous demonstration of the benefits of a well-armed civilian populace.)

But the perfunctory plot mechanics detract from the Witch Mountain mythology rather than adding to it. Spoiler warning: Do we really need our heroes’ homeworld contemplating invading Earth as their own planet is dying, even sending nearly unstoppable alien assassins to our world to kill two of their own? First The Day the Earth Stood Still — another sci-fi remake–cum–eco-parable, with a less-than-enlightened Klaatu — and now this. Whatever happened to the noble aliens?

Action, Family, Science Fiction

Related

REVIEW

Return From Witch Mountain (1978)

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.

REVIEW

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

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.

Mail

RE: Witch Mountain reviews

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.

Link to this item

RE: Witch Mountain reviews

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.

Link to this item