DVD Review: “Race to Witch Mountain”

Race to Witch Mountain (2009, Disney)
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The first words out of my son’s mouth after we finished watching Race to Witch Mountain were, “That. Was. AWESOME!” I concur, Jacob, Race to Witch Mountain is indeed awesome. Disney’s remake/newest adaptation of Alexander Key’s book, Escape to Witch Mountain,  is funny, full of some exciting action sequences, and has enough emotional appeal to make this movie well worth your time for the next movie night in your house. However, this is a movie that earns its PG rating, so if your kids are under the age of 7, the chases and final fight with an alien meanie may require some covered eyes; they get a little intense.

Dwayne Johnson stars as Jack Bruno, a former stock car racer, reformed mob driver trying to turn his life around by driving a cab in Vegas and living in a crummy motel. As the film opens, sin city is in the midst of a science fiction convention. Jack chauffeurs around geeks in Stormtrooper costumes and wonders “what have I done to deserve this?” One of his fares is a brainy, gorgeous woman named Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugiano), an author giving a lecture at the same convention about her proof that life does exist outside of the earth. Jack rolls his eyes and leaves her. But he’s soon to find out that she’s right when, after a run in with a couple of mob musclemen, Jack’s very next riders are a brother and sister whose behavior is strange and, well, a little out this worldly. The kids are Sara and Seth, played by AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig.

As Jack soon learns, Sara and Seth are from another planet and they desperately want to locate their spacecraft and return back to their world. Trouble is they are being pursued by the U.S. government, lead by menacing Agent Carson (Billy Brown). Furthermore an alien soldier from their home planet is also in hot pursuit. Its sole purpose is to make sure that they never return home. Being a good guy with a conscience, Jack gets sucked into their adventure. After all, as Jack puts it, “they’re just kids.” With the government, an alien, and mobsters all in pursuit, Jack needs help. He recruits Alex Friedman to help the kids get to Witch Mountain, where their space craft is being held by Carson and his army of scientists.

As I got caught up in the action and story of Race to Witch Mountain, one thought kept coming to me: “This is like a Die Hard movie for families.” The script is plotted like one of those big action films and the look and feel resembles something you might expect from Bruce Willis or Will Smith. Yet director Andy Fickman (The Game Plan, Reefer Madness: The Musical) pulls back the reigns of the car crashes and explosions just enough to make the film family friendly (this is a Disney film, after all).

Surrounded by top notch actors, this film hinges on the believability and star power of Dwayne Johnson and the guy pulls it off with ease. As an action hero, Johnson has all of the attributes of the big names in the genre, past and present: the brawn and physique of Schwarzenegger and Stallone coupled with the acting ability and comic timing of Willis and Smith. I’m not kidding when I say that Johnson deserves to be taken seriously as an actor.  As the two alien kids AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig are both interesting. Robb (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is a very talented young actress whose career will continue to blossom as she becomes a teenager. As Seth is more standoffish and untrusting of Jack, it’s up to Robb to make us care for these characters and she does so nicely. As wonderful as Carla Gugino can make any role — she’ done everything from Spin City to Spy Kids to Watchmen — unfortunately for her the role she plays is essentially the exact same part she played in Night at the Museum, a fact my daughter pointed out to me when she realized where she’s seen the actress before. Gugino’s wide eyed enthusiasm is always a joy to watch; however, she didn’t have to stretch much in this movie.

Director Fickman keeps the pace moving at a quick pace and he has a nice touch for countering the action and suspense with the light moments. But he wouldn’t be anywhere without the tightly written screenplay by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback (apparently pulling more elements from the book by Key). I like that Fickman was not out to make a remake of the original Disney films from the ’70s, but wanted to make a “new chapter in the world of Witch Mountain.” Knowing that his audience would consist of parents who may have seen the 1975 Escape to Witch Mountain and its 1978 sequel, Return from Witch Mountain, Fickman purposely recreated some of the famous shots from those earlier films as homage. Moreover, in one key scene of Race to Witch Mountain, he cast original stars, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, as two strangers who help out the heroes escape from the clutches of the government.

Race to Witch Mountain is like a great Disney amusement park ride: It’s fun, there are some scary moments, and in the end you want to experience it all over again. The Blu-ray/DVD/digital copy combo pack comes with deleted scenes, bloopers, and the Blu-ray exclusive “Which Mountain?” that reveals the hidden references to the original movie.

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