Race to Witch Mountain
I may have seen the original Escape to Witch Mountain (1975); I can’t recall. There’s certainly no reason for Disney to avoid plundering their frequently shonkily-made ‘70s and ‘80s live-action kids’ movies. Often they had a decent central idea but were let down by cheap and cheerful execution. Comedy director Andy Fickman doesn’t seem to have much idea of how to approach this, unfortunately, so settles for a rather banal Close Encounters-meets-X-Files.
Neither does the screenplay have much new to offer; alien kids land, government pursues them, good humans help them escape. Throw a bad alien into the brew to keep the pace up. But there aren’t any twist or turns, and you can feel the director’s enthusiasm for his pedestrian reboot petering out as it progresses. Perhaps Damon Lindelof should have punched-up the story, or at least added some unnecessarily cosmic confusion and existential angst. I don’t buy the “It’s a kids’ movie, it doesn’t have to try” line, either. One of the marks of the troubled Disney period from the mid-‘70s to mid-‘80s was how unsure of themselves they became, and thus how interesting (if ultimately unsuccessful) the results were (look at the likes of The Watcher in the Woods, Something Wicked This Way Comes or The Black Hole).
As it is, Fickman puts together an appealing cast and leaves them struggling. Dwayne Johnson plays the jaded cabby who helps the alien children; he rises to the challenge admirably, his easy charisma more evident when he’s not smashing things or people to bits. Carla Gugino has a nothing part, but she’s a pro and does her best with it. Ciáran Hinds is a disappointment, however, unable to lift his one-note villain from the barking commands level. As for the kids, AnnaSophia Robb displays the same surplus of talent that was evident a couple of years earlier in Bridge to Terebithia. It’s little surprise she’s such a rising star. Alexander Ludwig went onto appear in The Hunger Games; I can’t recall him so maybe he got horribly killed by another teenager.
Underlining Fickman’s comfort zone of comedy and self-referentiality, the best sequences are the opening credits trail through the history of UFO sightings and the scenes at a UFO conference in Vegas. In-jokes abound, and Whitley Strieber cameos. There’s an attempt to blur the lines of good and bad by introducing two different alien agendas, but the pervasive air is of an uninspired remake arriving a good 10 years too late.