When I look back at my life, and as I have similarly heard so often from many of you, movies represent key moments and influence thoughts, feelings and, to a large degree, often shape who and what we become. And I don’t know of anyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances who wasn’t touched in some manner by the classic Disney films, “Escape to Witch Mountain” and “Return from Witch Mountain.” For me, even then, it was a joy to not only experience the thrill of watching alien kids Tia and Tony exercise their super powers and be adventurous and self-sufficient (not to mention the whole UFO, spaceship, planetary travel aspects), but to see legendary Hollywood stars like Bette Davis, Ray Milland, Eddie Albert, Donald Pleasance, Denver Pyle and Jack Soo starring in what many perceived as”kid” movies. This was, and still is, pure magic.
The WITCH MOUNTAIN films, and Alexander Key’s 1968 book on which they were based, sparked creativity, imagination and fun for so many of us, including Andy Fickman, who now takes the leap into the 21st Century, directing a reimagination of the series with RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN.
We have all long heard of Area 51 in Roswell, New Mexico, the site where alien space craft allegedly crashed into the Earth back in the 50’s, leading to what many perceive to be one of the biggest government cover-ups and conspiracies in history. A place long celebrated in books and films sparking imagination and theorizing in young and old alike about little green men and life on other planets. And we all know about the “Men in Black” who cover up the truth from us all. But what happens when the aliens are nothing more than fresh faced teenagers trying to do their parents proud and save both their own world and Earth? What happens is the adventure of a lifetime.
Seth and Sara are from a planet not of our solar system. Their planet is dying thanks to its own version of global warming and abuse of nature by its inhabitants. Their government believes hostile takeover of a comparable planet is the only means to save their species and way of life. But scientists like Seth and Sara’s parents believe that co-existence with another species on another planet accomplished through peaceful co-existence is the solution. With their parents imprisoned on their own planet, Seth and Sara take it upon themselves to travel to Earth and retrieve a device that has been cataloguing life on Earth, a device that will prove their parents’ theories correct and offer a peaceful way for life to go on for everyone. But there’s a small problem. Their government has developed a killing machine, a droid/robot called a Siphon, sent to Earth to destroy Sara and Seth and the evidence that peace is possible.
As luck would have it, Sara and Seth jump into a Las Vegas cab driven by Jack Bruno, a man who has been down on his luck and wants nothing more than to make a living under the radar; a man with a heart and a sense of integrity and loyalty that is so precious and rare; a man that knows what he must do and is willing to do it; a man who opens his mind and embraces the special gifts Sara and Seth possess while embracing the knowledge that we are not alone. But once Jack hooks up with the kids, he finds out just how low that radar goes as the trio embarks on a journey to Witch Mountain. With the Men in Black hot on their tails, a Siphon trying to kill them and a Las Vegas UFO convention in full swing complete with a few helpful astrophysicists, the race is on to save two worlds.
This is one of the most endearing and cohesive ensemble casts to grace the screen, starting with Dwayne Johnson as Jack Bruno. A big fan of the original Witch Mountain movies (“Loved it. Loved watching it. I was very impressed with the powers the kids had because as a kid you dream about that, having special powers. It’s really cool.”), when approached by Andy Fickman, he jumped at the chance to play Jack Bruno. “Andy had this idea about reimagining this movie. He pitched me this idea. I loved the idea. I love the idea about playing a guy who struggled to stay on the right path for a long time. . .but yet, of all the people on Earth, he is given one opportunity to touch greatness. He is given one opportunity to do something really special and he steps up to the plate, shows his integrity. I think it’s a great thing.” I first spoke with Johnson last year while he was promoting “Southland Tales” and even then, his enthusiasm for WITCH MOUNTAIN was boundless. He was like a little kid waiting to unwrap his presents on Christmas morning and after seeing him on screen, it is obvious to me that his excitement over the project was genuine as it clearly carried over into his performance here. His comedic timing and delivery is impeccable – particularly with one liners. But he goes a step further by combining his comedic talents with a warmth and affability that lights up the screen and your heart. And not one faint of heart, Johnson did many of his own stunts here and in fact, was so enthusiastic about doing them, he sparked similar response from his co-stars.
Carla Gugino is a face familiar to you all, and particularly you “Spy Kids” fans. Known for playing tough, intelligent scientists, here as astrophysicist Dr. Alex Friedman, not only does she get to exhibit her smarts, but a choice comedic performance iced with motherly love. What impresses me most here about Gugino is the awestruck innocence and joy she exhibits on learning the truth about Sara and Seth. It is this endearing performance that helps capture the magical essence of this film.
Anna Sophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig fill some awfully big iconic shoes as Sara and Seth as the comparisons to Kim Richards and Iake Eissinmann, the original Tia and Tony, are inevitable. Robb and Ludwig exhibit a maturity and tenacity that is admirable but still exude the innocence of a child in many respects. A very fine balancing act indeed. According to Johnson, “The kids were fantastic. These kids were really nothing short of exceptional.” What is particularly beautiful is the relationship established between Sara and Jack Bruno. It is priceless and so heartfelt. You can actually see the affection growing between Dwayne and Anna Sophia’s characters as the film progresses.
As for the supporting players, everyone is in for some real treats, starting with extended cameos by Kim Richards and Iake Eissenmann who are pivotal to the plot in aiding Seth and Sara. Of course, a real coup is Garry Marshall as Dr. Donald Harlan – the guru of aliens. The one big shortcoming of the film is Marshall’s scant screen time. He is hysterical and I would have liked to see his character expanded. Also notable are iconic “UFO” experts with small cameos. This alone, plus a UFO convention with beloved characters from Star Wars and Star Trek abounding, should grab its own die hard core of fans that may not normally come to a Disney flick. And be on the lookout for the “bad guys” starting with Ciaran Hinds who as head man in black exudes evil (although allegedly working for “the good guys” – the US government). Disappointing is Tom Everett Scott as Burke’s assistant Matheson whose talents are wasted here with minimal screen time and dialogue.
Written by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback, the pair have met the challenge of blending action adventure , comedy and heart. On top of the action, though, there is a consistent, identifiable
storyline which can stand on its own without the action and vice versa. What impressed me most, however, and which I think is going to appeal particularly to the 40 and up crowd, is the homage paid to the original beloved WITCH MOUNTAIN classics and the “touchstones” of familiarity
that take us back to the excitement and thrill we each felt as a kid or a teen watching Tia and Tony. (And let’s face it – always very cool to have original characters from a film pop up in remakes or reimaginations). It was quite touching just being in the audience when intermittent applause broke out with the appearance of the old Winnebago driven by Eddie Albert in the classics. I have to say, without the talents of Matt Lopez, RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN would have fallen flat. As much as I enjoyed the novelty and inventiveness of his last film, “Bedtime Stories”, it pales to what Lopez and writing partner Bomback have done here.
Helmed by Andy Fickman, the film grabs you from the get-go with a fun and interesting opening montage and pacing that jumps directly into action. Kids of all ages will be enthralled with it. Thanks to Director of Photography, Greg Gardiner, the cinematography is crisp and clean but it is David Rennie’s editing that keeps the film moving at a brisk, action-packed pace. And the effects! Eye-popping, explosive and mind blowing!! Be on the lookout for one of the most exciting scenes involving a cab, a train, a space ship, a tunnel and a Siphon. And lastly, I would be remiss to not mention Stunt Coordinator Scott Rogers and his team along with Paul Darnell who is masterful as the Siphon stunt double.
Updated with very cool special effects, some incredible stunts, an exciting and imaginative script, comedy and excitement, and a cast equal to the challenge of capturing the heart and magic of the original films, RACE TO WITH MOUNTAIN will have you racing to the theatre this weekend and asking only one question when you leave – when do we get the sequel!
Jack Bruno – Dwayne Johnson
Sara – Anna Sophia Robb
Seth – Alexander Ludwig
Alex Friedman – Carla Gugino
Directed by Andy Fickman. Written by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback based on the book by Alexander Key.