After an enormous train crash/explosion, a line of dialog reassures us that the engineer (played in a quick cameo by Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook) was not hurt. This is, reassuringly, a Disney movie. The entire planet may be at risk in the storyline but the latest in the Witch Mountain saga is more exciting than scary. The 1968 novel by Alexander Key about two kids with paranormal powers became the the cheesy-but beloved Disney 1970’s “Escape from Witch Mountain” and its sequel, “Return to Witch Mountain” and made-for TV follow-up “Beyond Witch Mountain.” The story has now been “re-imagined” for the 21st century with Duane “The Rock” Johnson as a Las Vegas cab driver whose mysterious teenage passengers have special powers. It may be high tech and big budget this time around, but it unabashedly retains its essential cheesiness.
Johnson plays Jack Bruno, a guy who is trying to stay out of trouble, which means keeping out of the way of some thugs who want him to work for them as he delivers costumed fanboys and an expert in extraterrestrials to a UFO convention. At first he thinks the blonde teenagers with the stiff demeanor and robotic speech patterns are just another pair of nutty nerds. And at first when he is chased by ominous black vehicles he thinks it is just the same thugs he keeps turning down. But he discovers that these are a different kind of thug — they are from one of those mysterious government agencies that act like big bullies all the time. There is also a Terminator-like armored stalker-sort of guy who is after the kids, too. And when you are being chased by bad guys from two different planets, it helps to have a former WWF champion around to open up a can of whup-, um, butt (I said it was a Disney movie).
Johnson is the always-appealing heart of the movie, whether he is making a self-deprecatory or skeptical wisecrack or throwing a punch. The kids’ roles are unfortunately all robotic delivery and special effects wizardry, which doesn’t give them much of a personality. I don’t know why it is that movie aliens, whether they look like humans or giant insects, whether they are super-smart or super-scary, never seem to have emotions or senses of humor. It would make them much more interesting and involving as characters. The very talented Carla Gugino does her best with the under-written role of the scientist who researches extra-terrestrial life and Garry Marshall has fun as her nemesis, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn’t adopt, expand, and write a book about and who lines the windows of his RV with aluminum foil. Fans of the original films will enjoy seeing its child actors, Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, appearing as a sympathetic sheriff and a waitress. Johnson’s warmth and star power and some cool effects are fun even when the storyline drags a bit, if not enough to make the suggestion for a sequel at the end especially welcome.