'Race' Is the Place for Kid-Friendly Action
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Race to Witch Mountain," Disney's latest attempt to turn its '70s back-catalog rubbish into 21st-century, forward-looking revenue, isn't made for me or for anyone else who was alive to have seen in the theater the film it's revamping, 1975's "Escape to Witch Mountain." The movie makes my grown-up sensibilities ache and yawn through its blend of agreeably mild peril, hokey plot, broad gags, misty air of sexless romance, light flavoring of UFO urban legend, and tastefully lame special effects. If you had some device with which you could divide my 39-year-old self into three 13-year-olds, though, they would love it -- the action, the effects, the gentle-giant presence of Dwayne Johnson, the likable-yet-odd runaway alien kids played by AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig, the big finish deep within a secret government lab. "Race to Witch Mountain" is made for kids, with a mix of family-friendly thrills and conspiracy mythos and special-effects action, and they'll love it; think of it as "The PG Files" and you've pretty much got it in a nutshell.
The film opens with an establishing UFO crash followed by the requisite shadowy government operatives, led by man in black Burke (Ciarán Hinds), sifting the otherworldly wreckage. Suddenly, we're in Vegas, where ex-con cabbie Jack Bruno (Johnson) picks up a new fare: two unattended children who seem to have come out of nowhere. The brother-sister duo of Sara (Robb) and Seth (Ludwig) tell Jack they have to go out to the desert, and they wave a thick wad of cash to spur him along the way. They're very polite and very blond and a little creepy; they're like Canadian Aryans. (Canaryans?) Regardless, Jack drives (in what may be the most indestructible cab in the history of cinema), with both Burke's crew of special operatives and a masked mystery man, who Sara and Seth refer to in frightened tones as Siphon, in hot pursuit.
Sara and Seth are, of course, not from these parts, if by "these parts" you mean "our galaxy," and their mission is to both save their world from catastrophe and save our world from invasion. We know that, but Jack doesn't. Yet even before he sees the wonderful things Sara and Seth can do and hears their backstory, Jack's intrinsic decency makes him look out for what seem to be ordinary kids in deep trouble, and he sticks around when he learns they're extraordinary kids in extraordinary trouble. Director Andy Fickman previously directed Johnson in "The Game Plan," and he knows that Johnson's big, beefy demeanor, contrasted with the troubles of a tinier kid, makes for comedy. Add in Carla Gugino's Dr. Alex Friedman, a disgraced astrophysicist in town for the UFO convention, as a helper and female presence, and you've got a little nuclear family on the run from the military-industrial complex of two worlds.
And from my high, elder perch, I was able to admire how well-made "Race to Witch Mountain" is as family entertainment. There's gunplay, but it's glimpsed in the distance or directed at evil aliens, and Johnson never picks up a gun; the big, bad villain of the piece is a guy in a suit instead of a CGI spectacle; the alien technology is clearly built out of Lucite and foam rubber. The film makes a few dozy nods toward the concerns of the day: Burke can detain Sara and Seth under the "Patriot Act," and when Sara explains that her home world has become an ecological disaster "after millennia of neglect," Dr. Friedman sighs how, "That sounds familiar." But the movie is more interested in plot and personality than political points, thankfully, like when the telepathic Sara tells Jack that the things she has overheard reading human thoughts confuse her: "How can beings so large in form feel so small inside?" Jack, of course, does well by doing good, sticking his neck out for two creepy-but-cute kids who never use contractions and have the fate of two worlds riding on their mission.
At a brief, brisk 97 minutes, "Race to Witch Mountain" speeds by in a period of time during which your kids will be enthralled and which you, their grown-up escort, will find mercifully brief. "Race to Witch Mountain" is solid, tastefully lame kid's entertainment, neither numbingly neutered nor inappropriately innovative; it's a double down the middle as opposed to a home run, and floats lightweight across the screen with grace, good humor and a nicely pitched sense of modest aspiration. Whether or not I liked it is irrelevant; when the crowd of kids in the theater with me broke into long, loud cheers at the appropriate moment in the finale, I knew that "Race to Witch Mountain" had crossed the right finish line in exactly the right way for be a winner for kids.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.