Monday, March 16, 2009

Can You Drop Me Off At Witch Mountain?

Walt Disney Pictures resurrects one of their time-honored franchises with Race to Witch Mountain, a family-oriented sci-fi adventure that tells the story of two alien visitors (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) whose search for their spacecraft gets them caught up in an adventure with a cab driver (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) and a UFO specialist (Carla Gugino). As the group races toward the mysterious mountain in the Nevada desert that has mystified scientists and paranormal researchers for years, the government, gangsters, and an extraterrestrial bounty hunter attempt to prevent them from reaching their intended destination. Should the two planetary travelers fail in recovering their ship, an alien invasion will be launched against the entire planet.

Loaded with references to the 1975 Disney classic Escape to Witch Mountain, this completely revamped action movie is enjoyably watchable, even though there's not a moment of suspense in its squeaky clean plot. Jack Bruno (Johnson) is an ex-con taxi driver in Las Vegas, justifiably annoyed that the UFO convention is in town. And it gets worse when towhead teens Sara and Seth (Robb and Ludwig) show up in his cab, asking to be taken out into the desert. Soon government goons, led by the tenaciously evil Burke (Hinds), start chasing the kids, who are actually aliens from a distant planet and need to get to the secret Witch Mountain facility before an interstellar killer catches them. So Jack turns to a scientist (Gugino) for help. Despite quite a bit of violence, these filmmakers don't just aim at a very young audience, they underestimate them, over-explaining even the simplest elements of the premise and trailing every plot point miles ahead. They reveal every possible surprise in the opening few minutes, from which point the story basically writes itself. And the kids' alien powers seem fairly pedestrian, as if anything more complex might lose their core demographic. Fortunately, Johnson is on hand, as always, to liven things up with his offhanded acting and nearly overpowering physical charisma. And it's his gently bristly attitude, camaraderie with the kids and bullheaded good-guy toughness that adds interest to every scene. Even his chemistry with Gugino works better than expected. So it's a shame that director Fickman guides Robb and Ludwig to such stiff, predictably alien-like performances: big eyes, strangled dialog and eerie gestures. On the other hand, Fickman has a great time packing the movie with nods to the original, from small roles for original kids Richards and Eisenmann to the key appearance of a Winnebago. Fans who grew up with that film will get a kick out of these inside jokes, even if everything that made that film such a classic has been abandoned for a more pedestrian save-the-world action movie. The film lacks soul and is straight out of Disney cookie cutter land, especially the cheesy low budget special effects. But somehow the film works for me, I don’t know and can’t explain why, it’s just nice little lightweight film to watch, especially after watching the heavy and depressing stuff that’s been coming out in the theaters and on Blu-ray lately. This is the first “pure” family film that I’ve watched since Coraline. I don’t have a lot to say about Race to Witch Mountain. This film works because the kids and Dwayne Johnson are so darn likable. This gets a warm 3 on my "Go See" scale.

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