Race to Witch Mountain – Blu-ray Review

Looking back on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s World of Wrestling Entertainment career is to marvel at one of the more successful vocational makeovers in modern film. While attempting to foist the remarkably charisma-free John Cena on a trusting world, the wrestling overlords would do well to realize that Johnson actually possesses something special, and that there is no greased slide from the ring to movie stardom. Though we were unfamiliar with his meteoric rise through the WWE ranks – first as Rocky Maivia, then later, simply as The Rock – we definitely noticed his easy charm in the entertaining 2003 action comedy THE RUNDOWN, wherein he routinely out-shone co-star Seann William Scott. Smaller but showier roles followed in less lustrous fare like the GET SHORTY sequel BE COOL and last summer’s GET SMART, but even in non-starters like an ill-advised WALKING TALL remake and the merely bewildering SOUTHLAND TALES, Johnson demonstrated an uncanny ability not to go down with a sinking ship. The success of 2007’s THE GAME PLAN (a fable of paternal responsibility with a professional sports background so well worn that one could easily imagine Wallace Beery in the lead) encouraged Johnson and his agents and managers to set a clear career path for the star into family-friendly entertainment, as evidenced by the in-production TOOTH FAIRY (a warmed-over project that had earlier been earmarked for California’s current governor) and even a JOHNNY QUEST reboot featuring Johnson as Race Bannon. But it was last year’s healthy grossing RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN that offered definitive proof of the star’s appeal to children and his ability to open a movie as a leading man – even if he shares the screen with alien kids and talking animals, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Escape to Witch Mountain and Return to Witch Mountain (reviewed on DVD here) were two of Disney’s bright spots in an otherwise difficult decade. Beginning very inauspiciously with 1970’s The Boatnicks and ending with the budget-busting The Black Hole in 1979, Disney looked to still be stuck making stilted slapstick like The Apple Dumpling Gang (just as unfunny in 1975 as it is now). Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain, released, respectively, in 1975 and 1978, broke this trend by offering an exciting children’s adventure tale featuring superb veteran casts and the really wonderful Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards (who return in small roles in Race) as twins who possess unusual powers (including telepathy and telekinesis) but have no memory of their parents or home life prior to the orphanage. The revelation of their true nature will catch by surprise only those who routinely run into telekinetic children, but the kids’s alien nature was  smartly downplayed by Disney, giving Escape to Witch Mountain a mysterious edge. Though not released on DVD until this year to coincide with Race, both the original film and its sequel remain favorites thanks to their distinctly non-juvenile approach and unusually up-market production values (including an uncommonly large amount of location work for a Disney effort of the time.) The inevitable announcement that a remake was in the works gave many fans the willies, but we found Race to Witch Mountain to be firmly in the ‘not bad at all’ category with a winning lead performance from Dwayne Johnson.
As is the fashion now, all suspense about the past of the children is thrown out the window as the US military monitors the crash of their ship in the Nevada desert. In an eco-friendly plot twist, the children, Sara and Seth (played by AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig, both significantly older than their ’70s counterparts) have come to Earth to search for a science experiment left on the Earth years ago by their parents to study the decline of our environment. Their home world, it turns out, is dying, and the data gathered in the experiment will allow them to regenerate their environment, but if they can’t get the proof back in time their government will begin a military colonization of our planet. The kids seek help from ex-con and former mob driver turned cabbie Jack Bruno (Johnson) to drive them from Vegas to the spot where the experiment has been hidden, and a disgraced astrophysicist in Vegas to speak at a UFO convention (the always great to see Carla Gugino) is along for the ride, too. Complicating things are an alien assassin sent by the military on the children’s home planet to insure that they don’t make it back, along with the ubiquitous cabal of government agents (led by the great Ciaran Hinds) who are out to imprison the kids and their ship in their secret base hidden in – you guessed it – Witch Mountain.
Though the original certainly featured some suspenseful chase sequences (particularly for children), it seemed to be fueled by a sense of wonder and discovery, with the children’s past only parceled out piecemeal via hazy flashbacks. With the mystery of the children’s past no longer a factor, Race to Witch Mountain plays out more like an amusement park ride than a quest. The worst offender in this regard is the addition of the alien assassin, a thinly veiled Predator rip-off that feels like it was added merely to give the film a running action beat. And even though we were pleased to find Hinds – playing the role deadly straight – as the government baddie, the use of black-suited government goon squads hunting down E.T.s feels more than trite at this point.
This might sound like we’re being over-critical of the film, and we don’t mean to be. Director Danny Fickman set up a very believable UFO convention as a humorous backdrop for the Vegas scenes (Coast to Coast AM listeners will find many familiar faces – or, er, voices – in the crowd, including John Lear and author Whitley Strieber), and he is able to balance the demands of the genre while poking gentle fun as well.
The cameos by Eisenmann and Richards are enjoyable, and they even get a moment of screentime together. Their presence definitely lends the show an air of legitimacy, even if it reminds older audiences of the shortcomings of Race to Witch Mountain‘s young actors. These shortcomings lay the weight of the film on Johnson’s shoulders, where it’s ably carried. Johnson gets better and better with each film, and his work here (along with the underused-as-usual Gugino) raises the film well above the level of typical kids fare.
Disney is releasing the film for a limited time in a 3-disc Blu-Ray edition that contains at least one version of the film that will play for everyone whose home video system has moved beyond cave wall pictographs. The feature is presented on a Blu-Ray, a standard DVD, and a digital copy for download via iTunes.
The 2.40×1 Blu-Ray image is very pleasing; although the detail does reveal some budgetary shortcomings in the visual EFX department, we found the low-tech approach to the Sci-Fi elements quite pleasing (especially the design of the UFO itself, which could have been right from an episode of In Search Of). There was a slight loss of detail in some of the darker scenes, but this could have been a fault of the original photography rather than a video transfer issue.
The throaty DTS track also gets a workout, and if you miss any dialog there are about 75 subtitle options.
Extras on the Blu-Ray include a lengthy section of deleted and extended scenes running a little more than 20min, featuring helpful comments from director Fickman as to why the scenes were removed. Our favorite extra – “Which Mountain?” – goes over all the hidden (and not so hidden) references to the original film; some, like the use of a familiar Winnebago, we caught, while others we missed, like the fact that Jack Bruno’s cab number is 1975, the year that the original was released. There’s also a brief gag reel that’s about par for the course as far as these things go.
The standard-def DVD also contains an irritating extra, selling the virtues of Blu-Ray, featuring a pair of charmless, tossy-haired jerks that apparently star on one of Disney’s TV shows.
Race to Witch Mountain‘s will be available on DVD and Blu-ray on August 4, 2009.

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