Walt Disney has always had as a main theme in its movies the idea of empowering children. It didn’t matter what circumstances the children might find themselves in, Disney always found a way to bring them out of their predicaments with an inner strength that they never really knew or believed that they had. It’s likely one of the reasons the studio has been so successful with children’s films over the decades. Escape To Witch Mountain is one such film. It’s certainly not the greatest from the Disney vaults, but you could do a lot worse. The film holds a certain element of charm that I remember from my own childhood, and it appears to still have some miles in it 30 years later.
Tony (Eisenmann) and Tia Malone (Richards) are orphans. They have no memory of their real parents or of anything that happened to them when they were much younger. Now they find themselves, yet again, transferred to a new orphanage, after their latest foster parents were killed. They may not know about their past, but they are aware they have special powers that other kids don’t have. They have the power of telepathy and molecular manipulation. Tia’s powers are a bit stronger. She can put her thoughts in Tony’s mind, and she can use her levitation powers almost limitlessly. Tony must still move his lips to send thoughts to Tia. He also relies on an external force, in this case a harmonica, to focus his powers. They make no secret of these abilities, at least to the other children. Almost at once, Tony uses his abilities to defend himself against the orphanage bully. When the kids are on a field trip, Tia exposes her ability to predict the future when she saves the life of a man about to have a tragic accident. Unfortunately, the man, Lucas Deranian (Pleasence) has been on the lookout for psychic powers. His wealthy employer and benefactor has an obsessive desire for such things. When Aristotle Bolt (Milland) hears of the encounter, he desires to possess the children. Deranian poses as their long lost uncle with forged papers in order to get the children. Once at Bolt’s mansion, they are tempted by a life of luxury and excess. But the men did not anticipate their telepathy skills. When the children learn of their plans for them, they escape with the help of an ornery horse. It appears the children can also communicate with animals telepathically. They are aided, at first unwittingly, in their escape by a kindly, but rather gruff on the outside old loner, Jason O’Day (Albert). The three bond, and eventually they work to unravel the mysteries of the children’s’ true nature, and where home really is. But to get them home, the trio must evade Bolt, Deranian, and the police.
Watching the film from a modern perspective, it’s pretty easy to laugh at the over simple script and some of the dated special f/x. I mean, even today a flying Winnebago doesn’t quite get taken very seriously. But some of them are still rather impressive. There is a scene where Tony is fighting back at the bully with a bat and glove. We certainly know how it’s done, but I’ll be darned if it doesn’t look pretty convincing anyway. What is not dated even by today’s standards is the exceptional cast. You have to start with how naturally the two children work together. It was perfect casting. They look like brother and sister and immediately exude that chemistry that siblings have. They also play off the obvious fact that since they are all they remember about family, they’ve had to depend on each other for as long as each can remember. The rest of the cast is equally impressive. Donald Pleasance is always…well a pleasure. This film is shortly before his iconic part in Halloween, so he looks and acts a lot like Dr. Loomis. Ray Milland always appears authoritive and makes a worthy nemesis for the children without actually doing a lot of the menacing. Finally, Eddie Albert is the perfect good guy here. He’s made a living providing warm easygoing characters, and this is really one of his best.
Escape To Witch Mountain is presented in its odd original aspect ratio of 1.75:1. I liked the transfer for the most part, but I have to say something just doesn’t sit right with me. I can’t quite lay my fingers on the reason. It appears that there has been some tampering with the focus at times. It’s likely a result of some digital filtering or grain removal. Why won’t these studios just accept that grain is a natural element of film and belongs there, to a certain extent? I realize some reviewers out there complain a lot about grain in a picture. Perhaps studios believe such knocks will cause you to think twice before buying a release. In the first place, I don’t imagine we have that much power. If you like a film, you’re likely to buy it, if you can afford it. In the second place, most of you videophiles out there understand that such criticism is the result of spoiled reviewers who believe everything should look window clear, shiny, and smooth. These guys don’t understand film beyond a handful of years and should be ignored by the educated among you, who obviously know more than they do. Message to Disney, and other studios: Restore, don’t recreate! Otherwise colors look pretty good and natural. There is some digital artifact and so black levels are only about average. It’s not terrible, however, and little of the film is very dark anyway.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track might well have remained a 2.0 or even mono presentation. I’m not complaining; it’s just a waste of time and effort. Everything really happens in front, where it was originally. You can hear the dialog just fine, so don’t fret about the rest.
There is an Audio Commentary with director John Hough and the children, not any more, of course, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann. Unfortunately, it’s obvious they are not interacting and were recorded separately. It’s still fun for the reminiscing, but you don’t get the interplay I would have loved to hear.
Making The Escape: This 27 minute feature brings you a look back at the film from a more recent perspective. The kids and John Hough talk about the family atmosphere that existed at Disney at that time. They obviously still feel good about the film today. There’s some nice words shared about the three adult leads, all of whom are gone now.
A Conversation With John Hough: The guy’s pretty laid back and almost doesn’t move a muscle during this 7 minute interview piece. He talks about his career and, again, the atmosphere at Disney.
Disney Sci-Fi: This is a 3 minute montage of the various Disney science fiction films.
Disney Effects – Something Special: This is not really only about Escape To Witch Mountain. It pretty much covers the history of f/x at Disney. It runs about 11 minutes.
1975 Disney Studio Album: Just another montage, this time of the 1975 slate of Disney films.
Short: Pluto’s Dream House: A Disney film isn’t complete without a cartoon short. In this one, Pluto dreams that Mickey is building him a luxury doghouse with the help of a genie in a lamp.
Pop-Up Facts: You can enable this text feature to run with the film.
Ticket To See Race To Witch Mountain The new remake/reboot/sequel.
You’ve got to be willing to just let go for a while, or you simply won’t enjoy the film. If you can do that, it’s a sweet little ride into yesterday. You’ll find plenty to like, certainly enough to merit the modest cost. Disney gave you some extras to make it that much more enticing. If that’s not enough to get you to buy this nice little feature, “Then we’ll have to resort to cruder methods of persuasion”.