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HomeBlogPopcorn Parent Movie ReviewsMovie Tuesday: Race to Witch Mountain (PG)

Movie Tuesday: Race to Witch Mountain (PG)

Space Race
Alien teens run for the hills in this family-friendly adventure.
By Jared Peterson

Gentle giant Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson takes the driver’s seat in Race to Witch Mountain, Disney’s not-quite-remake of its nineteen-seventies Escape caper. Johnson plays Jack Bruno, a former stock car racer and reformed mob lackey who’s now a seen-it-all cabbie serving the blandly weird clientele of the Las Vegas Strip. When two teens (Alexander Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb) appear out of nowhere and nervously demand a ride, he can be forgiven for pegging them as just another off-kilter fare. Blond and dour, they distractedly introduce themselves as Seth and Sara, give directions in stiff, precociously wordy sentences, and produce wads of crisp twenties by way of overpayment. It’s like they’re from another planet—Connecticut, maybe.

Turns out their flying saucer just crash-landed and they are headed into the desert to locate an alien terrarium containing evidence which could prevent strange invaders from conquering the earth. In dogged pursuit is our government’s well-funded UFO patrol, commanded by one Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds), the kind of stone-faced suit the feds pull from cold-storage for such occasions. Burke doesn’t care about their mission. His men in black want their little green man, and the chase is on. Mild curiosity and an overgrown conscience draw Jack further into the fray, where his rough-and-tumble skills come in handy fending off platoons of human soldiers and a faceless alien assassin called Siphon (Paul Darnell for the running and jumping, and Tom Woodruff, Jr., for the growling and snarling) sent to foil the kids’ derring-do. Jack recruits another oddball taxi client, UFO expert Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), to the cause, and from then on it’s a race to Witch Mountain (here an underground military base) to retrieve the impounded spaceship and send our visitors home.

Witch Mountain is standard Disney adventure fare, a family-friendly puzzle with the challenging pieces already fit together. The film has a steady, energetic pace that shuttles politely between back story and the good stuff—grappling, gunfire and high-speed near-misses. There’s no mystery here, and little tension. No one even mentions Witch Mountain until halfway through, and then it’s just kind of where they’re headed. For extraterrestrial operatives, Sara and Seth make only half-hearted attempts to conceal their identities, and they openly wield their superhuman powers—she can read thoughts and move things with her mind; he can pass through solid matter and repel bullets and speeding cars and such—to turn things around in the nick of time. (It’s still not entirely clear to me why they needed a cab in the first place.) Unfortunately, these young actors have little else besides the superpowers to work with—just a faint distrust of humans for Ludwig, and a vague empathy for Robb that once or twice brings her to misty tears.

Johnson displays the charm and playfulness that have served him well from the wrestling ring (where he mugged and posed as alter-ego The Rock) all the way to hosting duties at “Saturday Night Live”. Spy Kids supermom Gugino is equally game, and far lighter on her feet. The obligatory but barely-registered attraction between their characters amounts to a missed comedic opportunity, though, especially given their respective looks: Johnson is bullet-shaped and enormous, a back-in-the-day Mr. Incredible; while Gugino is a pint-sized beauty whose buttoned-down nerd attire barely contains a Jessica Rabbit frame. In an even slightly more PG context, this would be a cartoon pas-de-deux to watch.

Alas, there’s only a no-wattage flirtation, with not so much as a smooch. There’s no profanity to speak of. (Maybe it’s this job, but I’m starting to feel like most movies just don’t need it.) That leaves plenty of room for guns and car crashes. There are those familiar, black-masked government shock troops letting loose with automatic weapons—a contemporary cliché on par with the whooping Indian ambushes in old westerns. Here, their guns blaze with mostly harmless sparks and ricochets to show for it. There are a couple of tense chase scenes that pit Jack’s cab against enemy spacecraft or black Chevy Suburbans, one of which Seth manages to total just by standing in its way. There’s an alien-assisted train crash so spectacular that it might have killed some people, though we’re assured soon after that the lone conductor was thrown clear and the rest was just dry freight. That space-suited assassin is faceless (specifically mouthless) and a little scary. A guard dog snarls menacingly at our heroes but is subdued by a telepathic heart-to-heart with Sara; later, he does her a solid by charging at the evil Burke. The fist fights are loud but tame and occasionally inventive—look for the one fought with both good and bad guys sealed in stark white hazard suits and wielding only stainless steel trays and clipboards.

Race to Witch Mountain may prove diverting to school kids and some tweens. But, like so many of Disney’s “thrill rides”, it may leave them asking, “Was that it?”

At a March 14th screening, the following previews were shown (films are not yet rated, unless otherwise noted):

Earth (G), a Disney documentary depicting a year in the lives of animal families—“Meerkat Manor” meets “Jon and Kate Plus 8”.
Up!, a Pixar animation about a grumpy old man and his beautiful balloons.
Land of the Lost, with Will Farrell being Will Farrell. Matt Lauer calls him “out of his freaking mind;” Farrell responds with a spirited “eat me”. There are all sorts of creepy, crawly insects in this one, plus ape people, lizard people, and a snarling dinosaur.
Monsters Vs. Aliens (PG)—a reference to “boobies”, a poop joke and an alien declaring “What the flagnard?!” (which is just frakking silly.) [Editor: Please excuse Jared’s geekiness. We don’t pay him enough for him to subdue it.]
17 Again (PG-13), in which Zac Efron gets an hour or so to perfect his Matthew Perry impression.
Dragonball Evolution (PG), based on the Japanese animated series/comics series/video game series/card game series—this one has exploding things, kung fu fighting, and some pretty big hair.

Jared Peterson figures what crash lands in Vegas, stays in Vegas. He most recently reviewed Watchmen. Read his thoughts about TV at http://panandscanblog.wordpress.com and everything else at http://proweirdo.blogspot.com

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