If you needed further proof after the disastrous Eddie Murphy vehicle "The Haunted Mansion" that not every Disney park attraction or every live action movie is suitable for a remake, than look no further than "Race to Witch Mountain", the new film starring Dwayne Johnson and directed by Andy Fickman (both worked on "The Gameplan").
Recently, Turner Classic Movies began showing a large number of Disney live action films. Everything from "Old Yeller" to "The Absent Minded Professor", "Freaky Friday" to "Herbie Goes Bananas". This library is a mixed bag, to be sure, some of the films are classics, and some qualify as little more than bad TV films. Among this group, they showed "Escape to Witch Mountain" and it's sequel, "Return from Witch Mountain". I tried to watch "Return from Witch Mountain" because it features Bette Davis (very, very late in her career) and Christopher Plummer. The ten minutes I was able to watch were jaw dropping bad. Bette Davis didn't help the production and everything about it just seemed so low budget. The following Sunday, I tried to watch "Herbie Goes Bananas" and was just appalled. But enough about that one. I could go on for pages about that little example of Latin American stereotypes.
I am usually against going to a remake. Generally, the filmmakers are trying to remake a classic and there is just no way they could ever even come close to creating a film that would rival the original. Why even bother? But in the case of "Witch Mountain" it didn't look like there was any place to go but up.
And "Race to Witch Mountain" is better. But that's like saying Adam Sandler is a better actor than Kevin James. Neither is good enough to make anyone care.
There are two significant additions to "Race" which makes it a little better experience. A little more watchable. The special effects in the new film are, of course, better. In "Return", the special effects are cheesy and look extremely cheap. They aren't even campy good or memorable enough as many films from the 70s are. In a scene when Bette Davis wants to steal gold bars from a museum, she has Tony make them levitate and float towards their waiting station wagon. And when an alien makes something move, it has to glow, right? In an era of CGI, the effects could only get better, more realistic and provide a greater sense of action throughout. There is one scene when they finally make it back to the spaceship and they walk up a ramp. The ramp appears to be a throwback to the 70s films, did they simply light up a piece of hard plastic? It seems a lot like the glow from the 70s versions of this project. But the rest of the effects work well.
The other positive addition is Dwayne Johnson. Johnson has such an innate charisma it is all but impossible to not like him. Every time he flashes his signature crooked grin, you can't help but smile in return. He also seems to have some ability to create comedy. In a recent hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live", he did a pretty good job, handling the diverse group of skits well. Johnson seems destined to become an action star and kid friendly movie lead. And any hybrid of the two. He has the bearing and attitude for action films, but also the likeability and wrestling background to make him likable to kids. Disney recognizes this and clearly wants to make many films with him. Maybe he'll be the next Dean Jones.
In "Race to Witch Mountain", Johnson plays Bruno, a 'man with a past'. There is some hint that he used to race cars, possibly illegally, and now drives a cab in Las Vegas. He is struggling to make ends meet and has to deal with a loan sharks goons. When a Sci-Fi convention comes to town, he starts ferrying around various people in Star Wars costumes. One of his fares, the seemingly normal Dr. Alex Freidman (Carla Gugino, busy these days, she's in "Watchmen") gets into his cab and they talk a bit before she arrives at the convention to make a presentation. The next morning, two strange teenagers appear in the back of his cab. Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sara (AnnaSophia Robb, "The Bridge to Terrabithia") want to be taken to very specific coordinates out in the dessert. At the same time, Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds), the head of a secret government organization trying to find evidence of extraterrestrials, becomes aware of the crash that caused Sara and Seth to become stranded. He and his team (including Tom Everett Scott) find the spaceship and begin to experiment. And a Siphon, a sort of child friendly-Predator is also on the hunt for the two teenagers. Can Bruno get them to their destination and help them escape?
It is a nice touch that Johnson's character apparently has a past doing some serious driving, fast and/ or potentially dangerous driving. Because Bruno has this history, his ability to out maneuver a bunch of vehicles in a chase is never questioned. This is the one point of the film that doesn't manage to strain credibility.
But as soon as they manage to get to the secret government compound where the ship is located, Bruno suddenly knows exactly how to operate every piece of equipment and exactly the right way to turn at every corner. That strains the credibility to the breaking point.
AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig are both OK. But because they are playing aliens, they seem even more remote and awkward than normal. In the original "Witch Mountain" films, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann played the original teens from outer space (both make a cameo in the new film) and the performances are very similar; a lot of staring into space, a lot of blank looks, all used to signify how out of place they are. But in both cases, this style of acting only serves to make the kids appear wooden.
Ciaran Hinds is suitably menacing. Tom Everett Scott, who plays one of his henchmen, appears to be miserable in his role. Carla Gugino seems to be included to provide a 'mom' figure for the teens during the chase. There is really zero chemistry between her and Johnson.
So "Race to Witch Mountain" is certainly better than the original films. But it is still a bad film, a waste of money. If you are looking for good kids fare, take your kids to see "Coraline", the type of film Walt Disney himself would have been excited about making. "Race to Witch Mountain" is the type of film he would make to pay the bills.