Walt Disney’s 1975 “Escape to Witch Mountain” and its sequel “Return from Witch Mountain” (1978) were mildly diverting little children’s adventures in which two extraterrestrial tykes possessed of special powers found human friends to help them escape villains (played by such luminaries as Ray Milland, Donald Pleasence, Bette Davis and Christopher Lee) who wanted to put their abilities to evil uses. The becoming modesty, marked by very low-tech effects, continued into a 1995 television remake.
Things are rather different with “Race to Witch Mountain,” which isn’t a remake of either earlier film as much as a total rewrite along standard chase-and-blast lines. It stars Dwayne Johnson, once called The Rock as a pro wrestler, who plays Jack Bruno, an ex-con who’s abandoned his old mob ways to go straight as a cabbie in Las Vegas. He’s hired by two oddly punctilious children, Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), to take them to a spot in the middle of the Nevada desert. Turns out they’re space kids come to earth on a mission from their peace-loving parents to save it from invasion by the expansionist forces on their home planet. But their saucer crashed and has been spirited off to a secret base by Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds), the evil government honcho who’s now in pursuit of the teens. They’re also being chased by a Predator-like creature sent by their planet’s military arm—invasion-minded as they are—to liquidate them.
Of course, after some initial incredulity Jack befriends the kids, protects them as best he can against their pursuers, and takes them not just to their initial destination but ultimately to their captured craft, which just happens to be housed in an ultra-secret government facility at—you guessed it—Witch Mountain. The trio is helped along the way by a money-hungry mechanic (Cheech Martin), a UFO buff (Garry Marshall) and—most important—a space-obsessed scientist (Carla Gugino) in town for a kook-infested convention. (Can you say romantic interest?)
Some of “Witch Mountain” is devoted to building the bonds among the main characters, and some to comic relief (especially the stuff involving the geeks at the convention). But most of it is action-oriented. There are loads of car chases with Burke’s forces, as well as a big set-piece in which the cab is fired upon by the Predator from its ship. There are even more fistfights in which Johnson can get clobbered by the vastly more powerful Predator but overcomes myriad human opponents. There are also scads of hair-breadth’s escapes, as well as a big finale in which the captured kids are rescued from Burke’s clutches and restored to their ship with information that will save their own planet and, by extension, earth too, while the Predator attacks the base. It’s only the largest, most extended sequence in which explosions of various sorts take center stage while the principals fade into the background.
It’s understandable that the Disney executives who greenlit this project should have decided that the childish simplicity of the seventies movies would no longer fly and that something more muscular would be required in this day and age. But they’ve gone so far in refashioning the material that the innocent charm and good-naturedness of the originals have been pretty much excised. “Race to Witch Mountain” ends up not being appreciably different from any of today’s most generic special-effects action movies. And as such despite all the artillery and sci-fi conventions, it’s a rather tedious affair.
Still, it’s efficiently made in the usual Disney way, with decent (if hardly exceptional) visual effects and production design (David J. Bomba) and crisp cinematography (Greg Gardiner). The on-screen talent isn’t quite so dependable. Johnson remains less actor than mugger; his turn here is more animated than, but about the same quality as Vin Diesel’s in “The Pacifier,” which isn’t saying much. Young Robb and Ludwig are pleasant enough, though they won’t efface memories of Jeff Bridges’ Starman, and Gugino, far more genial than in “Watchmen,” is on the right wavelength, as is Marshall, who’s actually more restrained than usual. But one has to pity Hinds, a good actor who does little more than sneer and snarl his way through a part he could be playing in his sleep (and probably was), and Tim Everett Scott and Chris Marquette as his lackeys. Fans may enjoy seeing author Whitley Strieber in a cameo, but nostalgia buffs will take special pleasure in knowing that Ike Eisenmann, the boy from the first two movies, is present here, playing a small-town sheriff (and now credited as Iake Eissinmann), while Kim Richards, the girl from them, plays a helpful waitress. Three decades do make a difference.
“Race to Witch Mountain” isn’t awful. Like so many of Disney’s revampings (see “Flubber”), it’s merely another disappointing attempt to revive the old chestnuts by larding them up with special effects. The original “Witch Mountain” pictures may come from a different era and require a different attitude to appreciate, but they’re a lot more fun.
*It’s irksome, incidentally, to have product promos so prominent in a kids’ movie. That Nationwide sign atop Bruno’s cab gets more exposure than most of the actors.