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.
The young stars of Race to Witch Mountain talked to me about making the movie, a re-imagining of the Disney classic, Escape to Witch Mountain, about a brother and sister with extraordinary powers. AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig could not have been more fun to talk to — they were both so bright, engaged, polite, curious, and excited about the film. It was easy to see why they work together so well on screen. They have an effortless chemistry, a shared perspective, and great chemistry. When they assured me that they were the best of friends, I believed it.
One of the big challenges of making this movie had to be acting as though you could really see all of the effects that were not added in until later. How did you know what to visualize and where to look?
AnnaSophia: Andy [Fickman, the director] was really great about explaining everything, all the visuals. And a lot of it was there — the only green screen work we did was in the cab.
You had to play characters who looked like human children but in reality were aliens for whom everything on Earth was new and strange. How do you create those characters?
Alexander: It was a really good opportunity for both of us because we had creative freedom to sculpt our own characters. No one really knows what aliens are like so we got to form our own characters.
Did you coordinate with each other to make sure that your characterizations were consistent?
Alexander: We became super-close. Since we were playing not just aliens from the same planet but brother and sister, we had to have to have similar qualities. So we would share our ideas. And then she just shut me down whenever I suggested anything! (laughs)
AnnaSophia: We would go over stuff and talk about it with each other. And his suggestions were great!
How do you create that feeling of excitement and urgency?
AnnaSophia: That is part of what we do as actors. And it is one thing Andy was great about, reminding us to keep our energy up, that you don’t know these these people are following you. Alexander was great about that, helped me keep focused on the fact that we were running for our lives.
Tell me about working with Duane Johnson! I’ll bet he is a lot of fun.
Alexander: Working with Duane is a joy. He is honestly a phenomenal guy, like an older brother to us. It was an inspiration to work with someone who came from so little, achieved so much, and is still such a genuine guy, such a professional.
Who are the actors who inspire you?
AnnaSophia: Meryl Streep, Natalie Portman — I want to go to university like her — Scarlett Johansson, Leonardio DiCaprio isincredible.
Alexander: I agree on all of her choices! Meryl Streep is phenomenal, Leonardo DiCaprio is truly inspirational, a phenomenal actor, Johnny Depp is an amazing amazing actor, unreal, Brad Pitt is another one I admire.
Tell me about Andy Fickman, the director. I saw him at Comic-Con and really enjoyed his enthusiasm.
Alexander: Andy is great — it’s like a toy store exploded in his office. He knows how to surround you in the environment of the story and makes you believe in the project.
Do you believe that there is life on other planets?
AnnaSophia: We have such a large universe, there must be something out there.
Alexander: I totally agree, the options and imagination are limitless, we can’t be the one planet out of all these billions to have life.
I have one copy of the DVD to give away to the first person who writes me at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Witch Mountain” in the subject line. Tell me why you like this movie!
Preschool programs focus on words and numbers and there has not been much about science. But all children are inherently scientists, endlessly curious about the world around them and constantly performing experiments and asking “why.” The Jim Henson company introduces the “Sesame Street” audience to scientific terminology and method in this utterly engaging series filled with music, laughter, and the love of learning.
I am very pleased to see this delightful DVD re-issued. I love the way it encourages kids to read by bringing them inside the stories. Meet Jack and the Giant, the Three Little Pigs, Little Red Ridinghood, and the Princess and the Pea, have fun, and get excited about the power of literacy skills. The first person to send me an email with “Super Why” in the subject line will win a DVD!