A film review by Craig J. Koban


2009, PG, 98mins.

Jack: Dwayne Johnson / Sara: AnnaSophia Robb / Seth: Alexander Ludwig / Alex: Carla Gugino / Henry: Ciaran Hinds / Matheson: Tom Everett Scott

Directed by Andy Fickman / Written by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback.

The original 1975 Disney feature film, ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, is probably the very first film that I can recall seeing in a theatre (with SNOOPY COME HOME a close second).  I guess that it was with a subtle tingle of childlike nostalgia that prompted me to see the big budget re-imagining (the in word now for remake) of the film (which, by the way, spawned a 1978 sequel film, RETURN TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, and a 60 minute 1982 TV flick, BEYOND WITCH MOUNTAIN).  

As far “re-imaginings” go, this new updated film, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN – which has some very loose elements appropriated from the original – is very high on gee-whiz eye candy and PG-infused sci-fi action and intrigue first and character development and story a distant second (this is a film for the young video game generation).  Still, even though it’s fairly slight, mild, and riddled with contrivances, this new WITCH MOUNTAIN is essentially as advertised: a cheesy, cornball, and modest adventure yarn that is entertaining.  

I remember the original WITCH MOUNTAIN films as ones that I enthusiastically revered, at least as much as a young tyke of five or six could muster.  I think that this new WITCH MOUNTAIN certainly ups the ante on a level of slick production values and visual panache (this version has a budget that utterly dwarves the low cost Disney fare of 30 years before), which is a bit of a mixed blessing.  From time to time you gain the impression that director Andy Fickman (THE GAME PLAN) is trying oh-so-hard to keep young fry in their seats by bombarding them with colorful and frenetic images and fast paced action sequences.  Yet, the newfound pacing of this remake is definitely not a bad thing.  RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN does a commendable job of not wasting a slavish amount of time on dry and slow moving exposition: it propels viewings headfirst into the story and never looks back.  Of course, this is assisted by the fact that this is essentially one big chase/race against time film, but by the end I found that it did a good job of achieving the modest status quo for family entertainments: it never seems to overtly condescend to little ones and it certainly is not dumbed down to the point will adults will cringe through it.  RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN is unexpectedly fast paced and enthusiastically directed and acted and there are few moments where the film sputters and grinds to a halt. 

Those expecting a scene-for-scene retelling of the original film (or films) will be a bit disappointed, but RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN gets the essence of the storyline and characters while making some agreeable changes and alterations for modern consumption.  One big modification is the casting of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (disagreeably dropping his nickname in the credits here; sorry, but "Dwayne Johnson" just does not have the same pep).  His career has certainly not followed the path as the heir-apparent to Arnold Schwarzenegger that many in the industry thought he was assuming (especially after great action films like the underrated RUNDOWN).  

Yes, The Rock has made many career misfires (the forgettable DOOM and the unanimously wrongheaded and wretched SOUTHLAND TALES, anyone?), but it’s interesting how effective he is in sly roles that perfectly make use of his best assets: his rugged physicality, lightweight comedic edge, and a deft ability to lampoon his tough guy bravado with an ego-free and goofy playfulness (see GET SMART and BE COOL).  Certainly, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN may not be the film that die hard action fans want out of the star, but there is no denying that Johnson...er...The Rock (that's better) is an instantly likeable and agreeable presence in family films like this.  He still gets to partake in his fair share of fisticuffs, gun battles, and action hero derring-do, and he does so a highly credible fashion here.  He rarely feels out of tune with the tone of this film, which is one that oftentimes eludes other muscle bound film heroes. 

Anyhoo’, in the film The Rock plays Jack, a former driver for a Las Vegas mob boss that has decided to turn his life around and live clean as a taxi driver (thankfully, the screenplay does not completely neuter the edge of the character).  After a troublesome altercation with a couple of his former employer’s cronies, he discovers two stowaways, of sorts, in the back seat of his cab.  They are Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), a brother and sister duo that are…well…a bit off.  They speak with the formality and preciseness of robots, but they certainly appear flesh and blood on the outside.  As the story quickly progresses they reveal to the initially flabbergasted and incredulous Jack that they are, yup, aliens from a near dying world that are trying to return with some much needed Intel from earth that could prove valuable to their planet’s scientists.  Unfortunately, there is an evil faction of their home world that does not want this information returned to them (for reasons that I don’t fully understand).  In order to stop them, a heavily armored, dangerously lethal and powerful Siphon is dispensed to earth to destroy the kids.  The Siphon looks like a curious hybrid between Darth Vader and the Predator creature…but a bit more kid-friendly. 

The genetically forged alien assassin is not all the kids have to fear.  It seems that after they crash landed their alien craft it happened to catch the suspicious and watchful eye of the US government, specifically those of a fiercely stoic and impenetrably determined agent named Burke (the perfectly cast Ciaran Hinds, oozing detached and sneering antagonism) who leads a squad through the Las Vegas deserts in search of the drivers of the craft.  Using stunning resourcefulness and uncanny technological aids, Burke is able to discover what the aliens look like and where they are headed (why, you may ask, isn't this guy the leader of the let’s find Osama bi Laden task force...beat's me).  What the feds don’t realize is that the extraterrestrial bro-sis combination of  Sara and Seth are anything but vulnerable.  Seth in particular can arrange his molecular structure to pass through objects or, in one nifty visual effects shot, can make his body aura so impassable that even a speeding vehicle is nearly destroyed while trying to hit him.  Sara, on the other hand, has even more varied powers: She can manipulate objects with her mind, control machinery of all sorts…and read dogs’ minds.  Not sure why that last one is altogether impressive.

Both kids, alas, are lousy drivers of their flying saucer.  Perhaps because they are both minors.

Considering the alien children and their abilities, the film left me asking a lot of questions: Like, for example, if Seth can pass through objects, then why can’t he simply just walk through Witch Mountain (the secret hanger where the Feds have locked away his ship) instead of going through normal means of securing it?  Also, if a car driving at full speed is left to ruins in the wake of Seth simply standing in front of it, then what can really harm this kid?  Sara’s powers open up even more queries, like why she simply does not just dematerialize all of the government agents’ weapons to dust when pointed on her and her companions?  She is also able to decimate cars with her mind to provide cover, so why can’t she simply explode Burke and company’s vehicles that are perusing them? 

I dunno.  Maybe the point of this film is to forget about logical loopholes, which I decided to do early on.  I guess if you allow yourself to be lost in RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN's family-centric level of alien conspiracy mythos, slam bang action and stunt pieces, and its lively – if not inconsistent – visual effects, then the film becomes a decently rousing, enjoyable, and fairly innocuous thrill ride.  As stated, the film does a commendable job of keeping up the peril and intrigue of the kids’ fate (the characters are always kept moving in the film, which heightens the intensity).  The film’s virtues are simple, broad, but easily enjoyable: you have noble hearted good guys, sniveling and deplorable bad guys, aliens, spaceships, and energetic stunts and action (which are frequent, but are essentially bloodless, so parents of very young kids need not worry).  One thing is certain: RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN is never boring. 

The chemistry between the main leads is nicely handled as well.  The Rock, as stated, has the market cornered for playing physically aggressive, but whimsical and sometimes self-effacingly awkward, action icons.  His easy-going charisma and eagerness with the material is a large plus in the film.  The kids he plays off of are also good; AnnaSophia Robb is an attractive young screen presence that displays good timing and a maturity with her performance (she was so terrific in 2006’s horribly overlooked BRIDGE TO TERRABITHIA) and Alexander Ludwig is also equal to the task.  I especially liked the great Ciaran Hinds in the part of the evil government agent looking to cover up the alien landing while ruthlessly experimenting on the kids themselves.  He is able to commandingly exude a contemptible uneasiness and sinister edge with the most moderate of glances (thankfully, he plays his villain role straight, whereas lesser actors would have hammed up and overplayed the part to teeth-grating levels, which would have subverted the edge of the film).  The only performance blip would have to be that of Carla Gugino, who has a largely disposable and throwaway role of a discredited scientist that comes to the aid of Jack and the kids to ensure their safe return to Witch Mountain and home.  She’s adequate here, and has an appreciable level of nerdy, book-worm sex appeal, but she is too good for the undeveloped and routine part she is straddled with. 

This new, glossy, eye-popping, and frantically paced RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN may have very little in common with the original low-rent Disney films of 30 years past, but that should not discredit this new entry.  There is much to like here, like The Rock’s infectiously affable presence; the child actor’s who make their starchild characters believably strange and otherworldly; a feverous pacing; and Ciaran Hind’s thanklessly decent turn as a baddie that is easy to despise.  On the whole, this new WITCH MOUNTAIN does not reinvent the wheel for family entertainment, but the film is nevertheless an unassumingly exciting and lightweight enjoyment.  Kids, no doubt, will very naturally find themselves engaged with the action and effects heavy film, but older viewers in the audiences will certainly not be left out in the cold either.  RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN is a film that I will probably forget about in a week’s time, but for now it works within its own parameters: it proves that remakes, at times, can be as good - if not better - than the originals and that family films don’t only have to egregiously watchable to just the pre-pubescent sect.  


Watch for the scene in a dinner where the original child actors from the 1970’s Disney versions, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, play a waitress and sheriff respectively.  A very nice, and discreet, shout out and tribute to the originals, for sure.


CTV Segment - Underrated Dwayne Johnson Films:

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