Escape to Witch Mountain is only the second Disney title I've had to review for DVDTalk. While the merits of Air Bud are debatable, there are a lot of people who treasure this film (and its sequel) as an old family favorite, and having seen the advertisements for the upcoming reboot Race to Witch Mountain, I was looking forward to seeing it for the first time. Alas, without the rose-colored glasses of childhood, this occasionally charming adventure film feels like a slow-paced relic of years long past.
Tony and Tia Malone (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, respectively) are arriving at their new home following the death of their adoptive parents. They have various mental abilities, including clairvoyance, telekinesis and levitation, which they keep to themselves for fear of being labeled as outcasts. One day, Tia has a vision that saves Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasance) from a terrible car accident. Deranian and his boss, Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland) have been searching for such kids, and they move in, manipulating paperwork to gain custody of Tony and Tia. Luckily, the kids catch on, and they escape, fleeing into the woods upon the discovery of a map leading to a nearby mountain.
First, the good. Surprisingly, one of the elements that isn't dated is the majority of the visual effects. The levitation gags in particular are still witty and entertaining. An early scene where Tony levitates a bat looks stellar; and watching the on-screen wizardry made me long for practical effects in movies again. It isn't until the final minutes that a handful composite effects show their age (boy, do they look horrible). Animals also pop up frequently, and their training is impressive, effectively filling their roles in the story and action (although I caught one or two shots forced unwillingly out of editing).
The other major coup is Eisenmann and Richards. They're not the finest child actors to ever grace the screen, but they are effortlessly charismatic and their bond as brother and sister is very effective. They hold their own on screen without any adults for a lot of the film, and without these two kids, the film could have been downright awful. As a Halloween fan, I also love seeing Donald Pleasance pop up in movies, and while he doesn't have much to do but blindly chase the children through varying locales, I was happy to see him here.
Unfortunately, the script is absolutely terrible. Scenes meander, the plot drags on and on, and the adults are all relegated to being exceptionally goofy. The years have also not been kind to Witch Mountain's gee-whiz, aw-shucks tone. I'm all for movies being family friendly, but this is as squeaky clean as they come, and the result is a film that feels stilted and sterile. It's hard not to see the effects-movie gears cranking the picture along; there's very little meat on the bones once the novelty of the visuals wear off. Personally, I also felt Eddie Albert to be a charmless leading man. Given the script's failings, I can't blame him, but because there are some great adult performances in Disney films over the years, his flat performance is a letdown.
As far as Disney's B-level classics go, Escape to Witch Mountain didn't impress me 44 years on (I'll align myself with the Bedknobs & Broomsticks camp, thanks very much). I'm certainly not begrudging anyone who likes it -- I doubt the majority of people like Home Alone as much as I do -- but as far as my first-time experience goes, I found the film a bit of an antique. Still, the effects are sharp and the kids are charming, so anyone with fond memories should feel welcome to give it a revisit (with modest expectations).
The DVD comes in a standard keep case, although the one I got was a bit on the cheap side. Affixed to the front of the foil slipcover is a sticker code for a free printable ticket to see the new movie, which opens on Friday. The art is slick, but it looks more like a magazine or website design than a DVD cover. The film is identified as part of the Disney Family Classics line, but it is not numbered and I don't know of any other releases. The back cover is clean and uncluttered, and the menu is cleverly retro (available in English, French and Spanish). The disc is plain silver finish, and a Movie Rewards Code and Blu-Ray booklet are included in the case.
I wanted to like this 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation, and for awhile, I did. Colors are bright, detail seems solid and it occasionally looks like a newly-shot film. Unfortunately, as the film progressed, I couldn't shake the feeling that some sort of unnatural digital tweaking had been done to the image. It looks like digital smoothing or grain removal has been applied (skin looks like plastic) and I swear I saw lightest touch of edge enhancement. The remastering also gives away matte and process shots, and some of those scenes get a little blurry. For the most part, the movie looks good, but I think there's a shade too much processing on the final product.
I poked around on the internet a little (well, okay, IMDb), and I couldn't find any information, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds a little dull, which makes me wonder if it was artificially created from a 2.0 or 1.0 soundtrack. In either case, the surrounds never really jump to life, but there is some mild directional action. It's acceptable, but not impressive. French 5.1 audio is also included, along with English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Nearly all of the bonus features are holdovers from the now out-of-print Special Edition Disney issued several years ago. The main new feature is a trivia track. It has some good factoids, but I can't get particularly worked up over it.
As for the rest, the best feature is an audio commentary with director John Hough and stars Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards. They were recorded separately and edited together, which cuts down on dead air. Both parties have a solid amount of information to divulge about the shooting, and you can flip on the trivia track at the same time (as I did) for icing on the cake.
"Making the Escape" (26:41) is a fairly comprehensive making-of featurette featuring retrospective interviews Eisenmann, Richards, Hough and co-star Dermott Downs. It's not too back-slapping (although Downs compares the film to E.T.), and has all the behind-the-scenes photos any fan could wish for. "Conversations With John Hough" (6:53) is mediocre. It's also more of a general chat with Hough about his career than Witch Mountain (although he touches on the sequel). "Disney Effects: Something Special" (11;04) is also not Witch Mountain-specific, but contains engaging interviews with various Disney effects artists, chatting about the studio's effects history. "Disney Sci-Fi" (2:45) is a baffling techno music video montage of their sci-fi catalogue, with a couple Touchstone pictures thrown in for good measure. "1975 Disney Studio Album" (3:30) is similar, but of course features their projects and achievements during 1975. Lastly, the classic animated short "Pluto's Dream House" (7:53) rounds out the rest of the features.
Several thousand Disney promos open the disc, starting with one for Disney itself set to the same music as the Morgan Creek logo, a Disney Blu-Ray spot, and trailers for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Blu-Ray, Race to Witch Mountain (ever-so-slightly different than the one in theaters), Bedtime Stories on DVD and Blu-Ray, and finally a Movie Rewards ad. Not satisfied? You're in luck. The menu also links to even more ads for Bolt, Tinkerbell and the Lost Treasure, Morning Light and Disney XD, plus all the aforementioned ones you already skipped past.
The bonus features are, once again, subtitled in English, French and Spanish (including the audio commentary and the trivia track), and grossly misspell Ike Eisenmann's name during the featurette. No theatrical trailer is included on this DVD.
This is a DVD for a limited group of people: fans of the original who don't already own Disney's earlier Special Edition. As a first-time viewer, I was left wanting, so for the uninitiated, I suggest you rent it before buying. Additionally, some people will want to take note of how friendly this DVD is for Spanish and French viewers.
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