RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN
Here Escape to Witch Mountain joins a whole host of Disney properties that have been remade as big-budget films over the last decade-and-a-half, a process that started with Steven Spielbergs Hook (1991). Others amid this fad have included The Jungle Book (1994), 101 Dalmatians (1996), That Darn Cat (1997), Flubber (1997), The Parent Trap (1998), Freaky Friday (2003), Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005), The Shaggy Dog (2006), Tron Legacy (2010), Maleficent (2014), Cinderella (2015), The Jungle Book (2016), Petes Dragon (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017). The majority of these are no patch on their original. That said, I was never a big fan of the original Witch Mountain films Escape to Witch Mountain was passable but Return from Witch Mountain seemed an indifferent effort made with no care.
It is important to note that Escape to Witch Mountain came out just before the big science-fiction boom that began with Star Wars (1977). More importantly, it was made before a host of films on UFOs and alien contact themes such as Steven Spielbergs Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and tvs The X Files (1993-2002). In remake, Race to Witch Mountain now buys into a heap of plot tropes that have become part of the science-fiction genre since the original was made. Most noticeably, the story has now been transplanted amidst the modern fad for UFO conspiracies. While the original had the alien kids on the run from a millionaire who sought to exploit their powers, the remake turns the pursuers into standard sinister government agents. This change is most noticeable in regard to the difference between the title location in either version in the original, Witch Mountain is the rendezvous point where the children are to meet the UFO that has come to take them home; here Witch Mountain has become an Area 51 type top-secret military base. There is also now the addition of a Terminator-like warrior pursuing and attempting to eliminate the kids that was never there in the original.
Race to Witch Mountain has also changed a substantial amount of the original. The kids are no longer orphans who are unaware of their origin but alien visitors come to prevent Earth being invaded by more aggressive factions amongst their own people. The film has also dumped the principal adult Eddie Alberts grumpy old-timer who gives them a ride in his campervan and replaced him with former wrestler Dwayne Johnson (aka The Rock) who now becomes a taxi driver and spends most of the film carting them around. (A campervan does briefly turn up towards the end). Dwayne Johnson is essentially playing another variant on the action man roles he has made his acting career out of indeed, there is strong similarity between the role he plays here and the one he played in The Game Plan (2007), also for director Andy Fickman, where he was cast as a tough guy who ended up playing comic nursemaid to a kid.
The major disappointment about Race to Witch Mountain is that the effects in the original, which was made more than thirty years earlier, are far more imaginative to those being produced on a big budget and with several CGI houses here. Escape to Witch Mountain was a showcase for the Disney in-house effects team who conjured a delightful array of animated broomsticks and baseball bats, as well as a climax involving the campervan taking to the air and the appearance of a magnificent UFO. On the other hand, Race to Witch Mountain feels like a childrens film that constantly wants to be a big budget action movie. There are big effects set-pieces with the kids being pursued by alien saucers, the Siphon terminator, government agents and the like. Alas, the cuteness of the effects scenes in the original have been replaced by generic set-pieces with explosions and raybeams. There is not a sequence here that we have not seen several dozen times before somewhere else. Moreover, the effects sequences are decidedly tatty while they maintain a technical proficiency, they never signal anything more than that they are just computer-generated effects sequences.
One has to balk somewhat about the film setting itself around a UFO convention. There is about 30 seconds of cuteness to the idea. Clearly, nobody involved with the production had actually been to a UFO convention quite possibly they had been to a science-fiction convention as the UFO convention seems to turn into the latter. Having mingled with both groups, one can say that this is something that does not happen in actuality the science-fiction fans happily regard their enthusiasm as something that concerns fictional subjects, most do not believe in UFOs and the majority regard the Ufologists as flaky nutcases; the Ufologists on the other hand take their interest as serious and real, not fictional, tend to think that most science-fiction films do not represent the truth about UFOs and do not like being associated with the weird fans in costumes. This aside, Race to Witch Mountain seems to only put the fans and Ufologists there for the purpose of making fun of them. Whitley Strieber, the real-life horror author who claims to have undergone an abduction see Communion (1989) turns up as himself, seemingly unaware that the film is regarding the Ufologists as flake jobs.
The remake is also determined to pay homage and make a number of references to the original. Most notably, there are sizeable cameos from Ike Eisenmann (now calling himself Iake Eissinmann) and Kim Richards, the kids from the original now all growed up and in their mid-forties. Ike/Iake appears as the smalltown sheriff that defies the government agents, while Kim is the friendly waitress that shepherds the kids away to safety. There are also characters named after actors from the original such as Edward Albert and Donald Pleasence, as well as a police officer Hough after the originals director John Hough. Meredith Salenger who played the title character in Disneys The Journey of Natty Gann (1985) also makes an appearance as a tv reporter listed as Natalie Gann. There is even for some reason a General V. Lewton after Val Lewton, the producer of a series of classic horror films in the 1940s beginning with Cat People (1942).