Who doesn’t remember the original Witch Mountain films from Disney back in the 1970’s. They were clever family films. They were camp, to be sure. But, most of us remember them fondly, if not as particularly outstanding films. While Disney’s reimagining of the franchise doesn’t have a great deal in common with those earlier films, you can pretty much describe the reaction as being spot on. Race To Witch Mountain isn’t going to be breaking any box office records, but it is the kind of film you get a pretty warm feeling for, and like its predecessors, you’ll end up remembering it with fondness.
A flying saucer crashes in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas. The crash just so happens to coincide with the arrival of a huge UFO convention in Sin City. The Defense Department has secured the crash site. They quickly discover that the ship’s passengers have slipped through their perimeter. Now it’s a race to find the extraterrestrials before they can hatch whatever nefarious plan has brought them to our planet. The investigation is spearheaded by Henry Burke (Hinds). Meanwhile Vegas cabdriver Jack Bruno (Johnson) is busy ferrying the “nut jobs” to the UFO convention. Bruno was once a gifted race car driver as well as excelling in demotion derby driving. He had once worked a stint as a mob driver and has gotten out of the business. But, as we all know by now, you don’t just retire from the mob. So, there are some goons after him to “persuade” him to return to the job. All of a sudden a pair of teens appears in his car loaded with a huge wad of cash and a mysterious electronic device. The teens request to be taken to a remote location that appears to be being directed by the unknown gizmo. When his cab is assaulted by a convoy of black SUV’s, Bruno thinks it’s his old mob heavies, but it’s Burke and his ET hunters after the kids, who happen to be the escaped aliens. For the rest of the film Bruno and his unusual passengers, Sara (Robb) and Seth (Ludwig) try to locate a device that contains information that will stop an impending attack on the Earth. The kids must find the device, get their ship out of Burke’s hands, and return to their own planet before an all out invasion is launched at our planet. All the while the group is being pursued by the mob, Burke’s boys, and an alien bounty hunter with a ton of weapons at its disposal. They have two weapons of their own. First, the kids have some remarkable powers. Sara can move objects with her mind and talk to animals, and Seth can manipulate the density of his molecular structure, thus enabling him to pass through solid objects or withstand a head-on collision by an oil tanker. The second weapon is Dr. Alex Friedman (Gugino), an attractive scientist who speaks at these UFO conventions for a living, who happened to be one of Bruno’s earlier “nut jobs”. Together they race against time to save the planet, interacting with some peculiar characters along the way.
As you can see, the story is far more involved and complicated than the earlier films were. The children also have stronger and more evolved powers than they did before. Here they are on a specific mission to Earth, while in the earlier efforts the kids were on Earth under adult supervision, merely separated from their own kind. Of course, most of this was absolutely necessary in order to make a film that could stand up today. Whatever fond memories we have for the originals, they were still very much products of their own times. That level of special f/x or sappy story just wouldn’t have found an audience in the rather jaded movie going public of 2009. The film features some pretty good f/x, but there are some very obvious CG moments. There is one scene where Seth withstands that truck collision I spoke about. The slow motion rendering is quite fake looking and nothing that hasn’t just been done to death anymore. Now the kids have some fancy instruments to play with and an alien villain that looks a lot like the black Stargate SG-1 super soldiers. The pace is pretty good. The limited attention little ones will get enough movement to keep them in their seats, and the whole thing is harmless enough fun for the adults in the room. To make it more interesting for the original fans, there are tons of references and in-jokes from the first two films including an appearance by Eddie Albert’s Winnebago and guest appearances by the original child actors, not children any longer, Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, in more than the usual blink of an eye parts.
The acting is a bit mixed here, but mostly for the good. The two kids are a bit too stoic here and never really give much of a performance. I’m sure it has a lot to do with how the parts were written and likely directed. Still, I would have liked to have seen more animation out of the youngsters. Even the sappy goodbye scene lacked the emotion it was aiming for. For Dwayne Johnson, I think it’s safe to say he has finally shed his “The Rock” persona left over from his wrestling and early acting days. He has gotten out of the typical tough guy parts. He seems to have found an unlikely niche playing in these Disney family films with children. It actually looks good on him. He has a remarkably natural way with kids, and it comes off as pretty genuine on screen. Ciaran Hinds did a remarkable job as Julius Caesar in the HBO series Rome. He’s pretty good here as the obsessed government agent charged with catching and experimenting on the aliens. Carla Gugino is coming off a wonderful job in The Watchmen, where she was often in aged makeup. Here she gets to wear her natural look and comes off quite charming as the somewhat timid scientist. The character has the best arc in the film. She starts out as a pretty shy insecure woman, who eventually finds her self esteem helping to protect these kids. Television sit-com king Gary Marshall has a rip-roaring small part as one of Alex’s rivals on the UFO circuit. He reminds me a lot of one of Mel Brooks’ own cameos. He’s larger than life and a total riot.
Race To Witch Mountain is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/Mpeg-4 codec. For the most part this is a film rich in detail. Colors are pretty natural and never really jump out at you. Black levels are pretty solid, but I was more than a little disappointed in the contrast level. The film is mostly under lit to begin with, and with inferior contrast things tend to blend together. There are more than a few examples where that great detail is merely swallowed up by poor contrast. The underground Siphon lair and the Hanger 51 scenes just don’t allow you to see things all that clearly. The film does sport a respectable bit rate, often reaching better than 40 mbps. There aren’t any compression problems at that level, and the print is, of course, in pristine condition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio track is a big surprise for this kind of film. The first thing you’ll notice is how powerful and full the sub levels are. You’ll get plenty of satisfying thunderous play out of your woofer. There is a clever and often aggressive use of surrounds where appropriate. The highway chase scenes just come alive with wonderful ambient effects and realistic placement of sounds. In all of this the dialog remains clear and perfectly placed. The score isn’t all that dynamic. Still, this audio presentation is one of the best for this level of film.
This is one of Disney’s 3 way combo platters. You get the Blu-ray, a DVD copy and a digital copy of the movie. The rest of the extras all appear to be in standard definition.
Deleted Scenes: There are 9 scenes for a total of 23:21. You can use the play all, and there’s an optional explanation for them by director Andy Fickman. This includes an alternate ending which is pretty much actually covered during the credit roll on the film itself.
Bloopers: (3:37) Mostly features Johnson.
Which Mountain?: (8:20) This falls under the heading of “Backstage Disney” in the features menu. Why do they do this? It’s the only entry in the sub menu, making it merely just one remote function more than is necessary. Do they believe it makes it appear like there’s more stuff? Anyway, this is a guided tour of the film by director Fickman to identify the various homages to the original films and Disney in general.
Director Andy Fickman worked with Dwayne Johnson on the previous Disney kid film, The Game Plan. It’s working out into a nice three way collaboration with Disney and these two guys. I fully expect to see more. This movie does honor its roots for fans of the first films, but does set itself up nicely to continue the tradition. There is an obvious setup for a sequel here. Like the original films, it’s intended as an amusement ride, and who knows rides better than Walt Disney? Hey, you might even see some crossover attraction at the parks before long. It would make a pretty good addition. If they do, however, “Don’t go into the pimped out fridge, Jack.”