Race to Witch Mountain
Director : Andy Fickman
Screenplay : Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback (screen story by Matt Lopez; based on the book Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key)
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 2009
Stars : Dwayne Johnson (Jack Bruno), AnnaSophia Robb (Sara), Alexander Ludwig (Seth), Carla Gugino (Dr. Alex Friedman), Ciarán Hinds (Henry Burke), Tom Everett Scott (Matheson), Chris Marquette (Pope), Billy Brown (Carson), Garry Marshall (Dr. Donald Harlan), Kim Richards (Tina), Ike Eisenmann (Sheriff Antony), Tom Woodruff Jr. (Siphon)
Despite being a child of the 1970s, I never saw Disney’s Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and thus have no point of comparison with its new “reimagining,” which comes complete with action-comedy star Dwayne Johnson in the driver’s seat and a slightly more dynamic name change to Race to Witch Mountain. However, given the general quality of Disney live-action films in the ’70s, I would guess the original was neither as loud nor as frenetic as this new version, which may or may not be a good thing. In and of itself, Race to Witch Mountain is a decent and at times entertaining bit of kid-centric fantastical escapism that alternates its hectic chase sequences and special effects spectacle with comedy involving government conspiracies and a geeky sci-fi convention.
Following his performance as a football star in the family-friendly The Game Plan (2007) and his self-effacing supporting role as a too-good-to-be-true secret agent in Get Smart (2008), Dwayne Johnson plays Jack Bruno, a former criminal trying to go straight as a Las Vegas cab driver whose life is turned upside down when a pair of tow-headed tween siblings named Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) suddenly appear in his backseat. Given that there’s a flying saucer on the advertising poster, I don’t think I’m giving too much away in mentioning that the brother and sister are not of this world even though they look like ordinary American kids, albeit ones who speak in a strangely stilted, computer-like manner. Jack is necessarily incredulous at their extraterrestrial claims, that is, until Sara starts reading his mind, levitating objects, and conversing with dogs while Seth reaches through solid objects and stops a speeding SUV by allowing it to crash into him.
Given that action is the name of the game, there are not one, not two, but three groups in hot pursuit. These include a bunch of scowling, black-suited government agents led by the humorless Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds), a pair of mafia thugs who are trying to force Jack back into business with them, and an interplanetary Terminator-esque assassin (Tom Woodruff Jr.) that is intent on taking Seth and Sara out before they can retrieve their crashed spaceship (which is being held by the government at the titular mountain, natch) and return to their home planet. That wouldn’t seem like such a big deal to the human race except for the fact that Seth and Sara’s mission is to return with proof that they can restore their environmentally destroyed planet and therefore scrap their plans to colonize Earth. To keep things especially interesting, Jack picks up Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), an astrophysicist with an intense interest in the possibilities of extraterrestrial encounters.
Director Andy Fickman, who also helmed The Game Plan, makes for a competent, if not particularly inspired, action director. He manages to keep things interesting and lively even when the screenplay by Matt Lopez (Bedtime Stories) and Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard) starts getting a little sluggish around the middle. He is helped by the aforementioned conference, which seems to be some kind of strange mash-up between sci-fi fandom and serious academia, both of which find their ultimate expression in a crackpot conspiracy theorist named Dr. Donald Harlan (Garry Marshall), whose outlandish claims naturally turn out to be just about spot-on. Despite the nominal heroes being kids, the movie really belongs to Johnson, who continues to refine his shtick, which revolves almost entirely around comically exaggerated incredulity that belies his massive presence (basically what Sylvester Stallone tried to do in his ’80s and early ’90s comedies and failed so miserably). Johnson still looks like a Rock and can take on just about any situation with a minimum of fuss, but he has a teddy-bear persona that reminds us that even the hardest of exteriors can mask a gooey center.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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