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Race to Witch Mountain
Just as good as the original.
Race to Witch Mountain
The Rock Stars in "Race to Witch Mountain."
OPENING WEEKEND: $18,000,000
DOMESTIC TOTAL: $55,000,000
  This Film is NOT a Future Release.
  The Following Preview has been Archived.

January 5th, 2009: "Race to Witch Mountain" is a thrilling action-adventure about a hard luck Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson), whose life is thrown into chaos when apparent 'runaway' teenagers Sara ( AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) jump into his taxi. He soon realizes his two fares are children with exceptional paranormal powers whom he must protect as they elude a collection of ruthless enemies.

What to Expect: I have a confession to make. I'm fully aware that I may be sacrificing all my carefully-acquired Film Geek Cred by doing so, but it's a risk I'm willing to take.

I kind of like The Rock.

Article continues below

And yes, I know we're supposed to call him Dwayne Johnson now. Regardless of what you call him, I like him. I know he used to be a professional wrestler, but let's not be elitist, shall we? I think he has a lot of charisma and good comic timing, both of which were probably very useful while he was body-slamming people in outlandish costumes into the mats and which are serving him well in his film career. His first film role of significance was as the Scorpion King in "The Mummy Returns" and "The Scorpion King," after which he moved on to some glorified TNT Originals like "Walking Tall" and "The Rundown," neither of which are terrible films but they didn't exactly make indelible marks upon the cinema-going consciousness, either.

So what does a musclebound former Gladiator of Syndication do for a career trajectory? The most obvious route to take would be the Action Hero trajectory, and Johnson seemed to be heading down that path, but then he veered sharply around a corner and now seems to be walking the family-friendly, Disney-and-comedy route. His supporting role in "Get Smart," his previous Disney film "The Game Plan" and now this role in a re-imagining of another of Disney's classic films seem to show him moving away from more cardboard exploits such as in "Doom" or "Gridiron Gang." He also dabbled in some serious indie fare with a role in "Donnie Darko" auteur Richard Kelly's inscrutable follow-up "Southland Tales." Now, the comedy-and-family-friendly trajectory backfired spectacularly for Vin Diesel, but I suspect Johnson may have better luck.

This film, on the other hand...I'm less confident. Once upon a time, Disney was a powerhouse of imagination and creativity, enriching the world with magical tales and hummable, infectious music, pushing the envelope of moviemaking and showing us something new and exciting with each film they released. That has not been true for a very long, sad time. Nowadays, Disney does little but repackage pre-existing material to wring more money from it, strip-mining its own past to keep its wobbling ship afloat. Pandering Disney Princess merchandise and egregiously substandard straight-to-video sequels to their classic animated hits have diluted Disney's legacy to the point of meaninglessness. If it weren't for Pixar, Disney would be producing very little original material at all.

Nor are they doing so with this film. Surprise, it's another repackaging.

I grew up watching Disney's family films, the classic ones from the sixties and seventies. All those great old Kurt Russell and Tommy Kirk films like "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" and "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones." I spent long hours mooning over James MacArthur in "Swiss Family Robinson." That being said, I must confess I never saw "Escape to Witch Mountain," the 1975 film about a pair of alien twins who are on the run from nefarious villains looking to exploit their supernatural abilities. I must have been too busy watching "Pete's Dragon" for the hundredth time. But hey, why not "re-imagine" it? They're already doing the same thing to "Tron." Why leave any of our childhood memories unsullied? Why force modern children to watch films from the past (like I did, and enjoyed them thank you very much) when we can make them a shiny new soulless version and make more money doing it?

Do I sound bitter? Sorry about that.

Now that I've gotten that little rant out of my system, I can admit that this film looks...not so bad. The director is Andy Fickman, about whom I can say little except that he previously directed Johnson in "The Game Plan" and also directed the forgettable Amanda Bynes gender-bending comedy "She's the Man." He clearly knows how to utilize Johnson's comic presence, and by the trailer, Johnson's not playing a larger-than-life character, but rather a more ordinary man, a down-on-his-luck cabbie who just happens to pick up two teenagers who turn out to be extraterrestrials. Johnson also looks like he's pumping down a little, his physical presence is less intimidating, which may allow him to exploit some of his other assets. The runaway teens need his help to elude ominous pursuers, led by the always-spooky Ciaran Hinds, and make their way back to Witch Mountain and their spacecraft. They're helped by disgraced astrophysicist Carla Gugino, whose belief in extraterrestrials have put her at odds with the science establishment. The alien angle looks to be much more prominent than it was in the original film. Director Fickman was, ironically, born in Roswell, New Mexico and has had a lifelong interest in aliens and UFOs, and his enthusiasm may help inject the film with some passion for the subject. Regardless of one's opinion of the merit in reimagining films, sometimes it's fun to see more bang for your buck, literally, in the form of better effects and a more exciting storylines. Turning things up to eleven isn't always a good thing, though, and it's so easy to go overboard in the other direction.

In a smart move that is sure to please fans of the original film, the actors who played the kids before both have minor roles in this film, as a waitress and a sheriff, and the Winnebago that they famously escaped in will also show up (although the kids' savior drives a cab this time around instead of an RV).

So. Is Dwayne Johnson the new go-to guy for family films? Disney's new golden boy? I'm not sure. As I said, I think he has charm and humor, but I also think those qualities could be better utilized elsewhere. In some ways he reminds me of Brendan Fraser, a man of tragically wasted but considerable acting talent and grossly unrealized potential whose own charm and humor were the saving grace of "The Mummy," and who has also, coincidentally, been doing the family-film leading-man thing himself. I'd just caution Johnson to look at Vin Diesel's downward spiral and be cautious. There are plenty of action, drama, thriller, mystery and sci-fi films who could really benefit from a charming leading man, and comedy doesn't have to be so...Disneyfied, for lack of a better word. Imagine what Johnson could do if Christopher Guest or Judd Apatow got a hold of him. Better yet, imagine him in a Wes Anderson film. I'm already giggling with glee. He should make a movie with Ben Stiller or another one with Steve Carell.

But hey, I'm not the guy's agent. He's stated that his affinity for Disney springs in part from his six-year-old daughter, who loves Disney films, and I can certainly understand wanting to make films that one's own child could watch and enjoy. He's also stated that they offered him a hefty paycheck, a reason I can respect for its honesty. I think Johnson is still getting used to fact that he could be a bankable film star, and is no longer a former pro wrestler trying to become one. You're not Rowdy Roddy Piper, Dwayne. Grow a pair.

"Race to Witch Mountain" might play well on Saturday afternoons. I'm dubious about its ability to draw in an adult audience. A fun movie to Netflix on a rainy day? Sure. A movie to take a date to on Friday night? No way.

In Conclusion: Disney is clearly counting on Dwayne Johnson to draw in audiences, and while I like him, I don't think he's there yet as a box-office draw. Fans of the original "Witch Mountain" movies may go see it, or they may be put off by how it's been reimagined. After a string of failures (although "Bolt" was a step in the right direction) Disney is still counting on nostalgia and repackaging of known commodities to bolster their bottom line when they'd do better to invest in better and more creative people to generate new material. I doubt "Race to Witch Mountain" will be a new (old) classic for them.

Similar Titles: Escape to Witch Mountain, Return from Witch Mountain, The Game Plan
March 13th, 2009 (wide)
August 4th, 2009 (DVD)

Walt Disney Pictures

Andy Fickman

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, Alexander Ludwig, Tom Everett Scott, Christopher Marquette, Cheech Marin, Garry Marshall

Total: 27 vote(s).

Action & Adventure, Fantasy

Click here to view site

Rated PG for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements

98 min





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