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Race to Witch Mountain

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/15/09 15:05:02

"Do you smell the bland remake the Rock is cookin'?"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

“Race” is the key word in the title for “Race to Witch Mountain,” the latest remake of the 1975 Disney favorite “Escape to Witch Mountain.” The film is one long chase sequence, a Michael Bay flick disguised as a family adventure.

It’s also, I believe, the first Disney movie to use the phrase “pimped out.” But don’t worry: before little Junior can ask mommy what a pimp is, he’ll be sidetracked by a plot points involving ruthless government agents, wacko conspiracy theorists, Las Vegas hitmen, the Steve McQueen movie “Bullitt,” a Whitley Striber cameo, a sci-fi convention, and enough gunplay to satisfy any John Woo fan. Director Andy Fickman has come a long way since “Reefer Madness: The Musical” and the T&A comedy “Who’s Your Daddy?” - his last effort was Disney’s “The Game Plan” - but perhaps he and screenwriters Matt Lopez (“Bedtime Stories”) and Mark Bomback (“Deception,” “Live Free or Die Hard”) haven’t yet figured out that kids movies don’t require grown-up action sequences and MTV slang.

Dwayne Johnson stars as Jack Bruno, a former driver for the mob who’s spending his post-felon years driving cabs around Las Vegas. (This is the sort of Disney-friendly backstory the writers give us?) After manhandling a couple mobster thugs - there's a weird, mercifully underdeveloped subplot in which the Vegas crime king demands Jack return to work for him; Jack repeatedly shakes off and/or roughs up the goons - he stumbles upon Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), two strange children carrying a giant wad of cash. They drive out to an abandoned shack in the middle of the desert, encounter an alien bounty hunter reminiscent of the titular beast from “Predator,” and outrun some government spooks (led by Ciarán Hinds).

Because the script needs him to be, Jack is a little too dense, never believing the children’s claims that they’re aliens, even after being chased by a spaceship. He finally believes once Sara makes the CDs in his cab levitate. But Jack is presented elsewhere as quick-witted and resourceful; making him turn on and off his stupid whenever the plot requires it reveals a lazy screenplay that rarely thinks in terms of character.

Another clue: the kids are sometimes blank-slate emotionless aliens, sometimes heartwarming children with big feelings. This makes the characters nearly impossible to play, and we never connect with them. Robb and Ludwig are fine in the roles, as best they can be, but it can’t matter if the characters are both bland and inconsistent. (The same goes for costar Carla Gugino, stuck in a flat sidekick role as an astrophysicist. Garry Marshall, meanwhile, grinds everything to a halt with a hammy appearance as a zany conspiracy nut.)

Thankfully, Johnson has enough charisma to fill in the gaps. He’s as charming as ever here, and while the move to Disney fare seems unlikely for the former pro wrestler, he proves here once again that he’s a solid actor who can breathe a whole lot of life into lackluster projects. Too bad he’s not asked to do much more here than run around and crack wise.

And all that running around isn’t just tiresome, it’s pointless. The story never gives us much in terms of suspense - despite a constant state of urgency placed upon the action, there’s really no race against time, especially once you consider that after all that running away from the government agents, the plot requires them to run toward them, in their secret facility at Witch Mountain. It also doesn’t help that the movie’s action is limited to a small circle around Vegas, which means we’re constantly going in circles. It’s hard to feel tension in a movie that, at the one hour mark, puts you right back where you started.

Fickman has a nice sense for pacing, and the movie rips forward at high speed, making the proceedings energetic, if not exactly exciting (and the issue is that the filmmakers can’t tell the difference between the two). The car chases and fast escapes all come at a steady rhythm, enhanced by a easygoing quality that keeps the mood light. But all that running and driving and jumping and escaping fireballs (one of which is included completely without explanation, just so Johnson and Gugino can escape a fireball) grows tiresome very quickly. So does the often mediocre humor and always mediocre special effects. An environmentally-minded plot point would, too, if the writers bothered to flesh it out in any way that made it matter - ah, but then the writers didn’t bother to flesh out anything, opting instead to paste together a string of barely connected ideas and jokes. (There’s even a dog that appears and disappears from the story seemingly at random. Why include the mutt at all?)

This new “Witch Mountain” isn’t nearly as soulless or crass as other recent Disney remakes (I’m looking at you, “The Shaggy Dog”), but it’s most definitely louder. All that inappropriate gunfire (again: what were they thinking?) grates more than it entertains. Kids - those able to ignore the “Bullitt” references and Cheech Marin cameos (did I mention Cheech Marin has a cameo? No? That’s because it doesn’t matter) - might enjoy their first take at a noisier, boomier action movie, but parents will leave with a headache and a strong desire to dig out their old copy of the original.

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