Disney was one of the first studios to realize the financial benefit of re-releasing titles every seven or so years. In that span of time, a whole new slew of kids were around to enjoy the films for the first time, and even kids who had been there on the first time around were eager to return to see their favorites again. Of course this was all before the advent of home video. One thing that Disney couldn't quite overcome was the dated aspect to some of its films, something that (ridiculously so, if you ask me) led to the complete withdrawal of certain titles like Song of the South. Other, less vaunted titles, saw their creaky special effects and, frankly, hackneyed story elements put the kibosh on any theatrical re-releases, despite their initial success, and continued sales in the home video market. And in cases like that, Disney simply does the next best thing: it remakes them. Such a beast is Race to Witch Mountain, a more or less direct remake of 1975's Escape to Witch Mountain. If this particular version jettisons one of the chief mystery elements of that original, it amps up the action quotient considerably and provides yet another opportunity for Dwayne Johnson to prove that he is, as improbable as it sounds, one of the most appealing stars currently treading the filmic boards.
Alexander Key's original novel had a central mystery that formed the basis for the 1970s film adaptation: who were these two enigmatic children, why were their memories cloudy, and, most importantly, why did they possess rather unusual powers? I guess, since this new version completely does away with the mystery and just provides the answer more or less up front, it's not really a spoiler to post it here: they are aliens. In the original film, this revelation was a slowly unfolding realization on the part of the kids, one that added an element of intrigue to the tale of two apparently hapless orphan souls who were at the mercy of ominous people chasing them for a reason they couldn't discern. In this update, we instead are pretty much handed the little nugget of the kids' real identity from almost the get go, as they mysteriously appear in taxi driver Jack Bruno's (Johnson) car and then proceed to manifest several interesting powers.
This is not a thoughtful or deep film by any stretch, and in fact when it attempts to link big picture items like the war on terror or, to a lesser degree, environmental concerns (the kids are here to, among other reasons which I won't post for spoiler purposes, scope out our planet since theirs is dying due to pollution), it largely falls flat. And while there are at least one too many over the top car chases in this film, Race to Witch Mountain lives up to the verb that starts its title and provides one pretty exciting fast moving action sequence after another which provides the film a spirited pace.
While Alexander Ludwig, who portrays alien boy Seth, proves that his stilted work in The Seeker: The Dark is Rising was no mere fluke, AnnaSophia Robb manages to invest her Sara, Seth's sibling (I'm feeling alliterative all of a sudden) with an unexpected degree of emotion, helping to bring the climax some measure of heart. Carla Gugino, certainly one of the most unbearably wasted talents, is again left to muddle through an underwritten and cliché ridden role, but, as is her wont, she pulls it off with a fair degree of spunk and sparkle. But it's Johnson, again exceeding what are probably admittedly low expectations, who carries this film, and he does it quite effortlessly. He's firmly out of the pure action-adventure mode here (despite some nice stunt work, especially in the climax), but he's made that transition pretty effortlessly. Johnson has an easy self-deprecatory style that suits this character (and this film generally) to a tee. While he never quite winks directly at the audience, he comes close a couple of times. His repartee with the kids, Gugino, and errant dog Junkyard is breezy and very enjoyable for most of this film. I've stated this before, in other "Rock" outings, but Johnson is quickly becoming one of my favorite male leads in films. And, no, I'm not ashamed to admit that.
The film does sport some good to excellent special effects, certainly head and shoulders above the 1975 iteration. That said, there's a decidedly low tech moment late in the film, when the spaceship takes a little jaunt around Witch Mountain, which seems to deliberately evoke the less than digital perfection that defined the first film. Director Andy Fickman stages the proceedings very well, often tipping his hat to original director John Hough. In fact, the film is filled with allusions to the original version (something detailed in an enjoyable extra), including cameos by the two original "kids," now middle aged character actors. (There are some other fun cameos by everyone from putative UFO abductee Whitley Streiber to Garry Marshall).
Race to Witch Mountain was Disney's first film to open at number one at the boxoffice in 2009. I'm not sure if that's a testament to its intrinsic quality or the dearth of product available to the viewing public that week. Joking aside, this is an enjoyable little romp with nothing much to say, but with some fun action sequences to keep things hopping. The ending sets up what will probably be a sequel in a year or so, so we can determine then if Disney is remaking Return from Witch Mountain.