Race to Witch Mountain (2009)
Disney // PG // March 13, 2009
Review by Tyler Foster | posted March 14, 2009
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People say that movies these days lack character development, but what they lack is personality. There are lots of characters in Disney's new big-budget update Race to Witch Mountain, including a cab driver with a sketchy history, a geeky scientist who believes in aliens, a stone-faced Department of Defense agent hot on their heels and two aliens themselves, schooled poorly in Earth lingo. Yet they all rattle around this hollow spectacle like bits of plastic inside a broken action figure, without a single bit of cinematic life among them.

More like a third sequel than a remake, Race takes place in the Nevada desert outside Las Vegas, where Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds) and his agents (Christopher Marquette and Tom Everett Scott) scowl at a hole in the ground. It was left by aliens Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), who have crashed on Earth looking for data to prevent the planet from being destroyed. All of this is bad luck for Jack Bruno (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, in his continuing shift to family-friendly movie star), who finds them (literally) as passengers in his cab. He takes them where they ask to go, only to discover black SUVs ominously following their every move and an alien assassin hot on their tail.

I'm sure writers Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback would argue that Jack Bruno has plenty of character. He's holding a legit job after working for a Las Vegas crime lord. He's always been sort of a 'no' man, but he's working to say 'yes' to a 1968 Camaro he's always dreamed of. And he doesn't believe in aliens, which makes the appearance of two of them an emotionally complicated experience. These elements are developed over the course of the movie in what would most certainly be called a character arc, yet none of these things develop Jack beyond the stock Everyman on the page. It certainly explains things, such as his driving skills and why he goes against his gut to help Seth and Sara out, but it never affects his mindset or changes his reaction to anything. He's as bland as his name, and it's disappointing. The same goes for both the cosmically underutilized Carla Gugino and both Robb and Ludwig as the mildly annoying aliens, who insist on speaking using irritatingly stilted terminology the entire movie.

Unfortunately, my fellow critic Brian Orndorf's assessment that this is "the loudest Witch Mountain" is accurate. Director Andy Fickman doesn't seem to know what makes an action sequence exciting, so he resorts to terrible shaky-cam and a ridiculous number of explosions to cover it all up (it seems like at least fifty explosions even before the second act, and parents may want to know that there are a surprising amount of guns). The visual effects range from acceptable to awful, which is a shame: one of the few elements of the original that I liked was the old-school trickery. Many of the action sequences are also created by contrivances in the plot designed to waste time or hold the characters up, such as those thugs tracking Jack, who add less than nothing to the film and vanish without a trace: all "character", no personality.

Although my recent experience of the original was the first time, the little touches for fans struck me as pretty endearing: the creature sent to kill them is named Deranian, a Winnebago works its way into the trip, and best of all, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann pop up for cameos, and they actually get stuff to do, rather than just quickly disappearing (random appearances by Cheech Marin and Garry Marshall don't fare as well). That's where the cleverness ends, though. The film wants desperately to take a self-referential jab at both itself and its audience, but it doesn't understand either. Scenes at a sci-fi convention and The Rock's constant feel scripted and fake, especially the conventioneers. There are a lot of Stormtroopers, and the worst fake "movie" stage show ever, but nothing incisive or understanding. I'm all in for a good jab at sci-fi nerds, but you have to "get" them before you can make one, and these are just lame caricatures.

When I saw the trailer for Race to Witch Mountain, I thought it looked really good by Disney live-action standards, but a friend of mine who liked the originals thought it looked too overproduced, like a big, Hollywood version of something that was better left old-fashioned. At first, I thought the original was too old-fashioned, but unfortunately, she was right: it leans on a mediocre sense of pop-culture humor and the spruced-up spectacle is decidedly dull. "Too smart by half" is a term Roger Ebert likes to use in his reviews to describe something too clever for its own good. Race to Witch Mountain is more like too savvy by one half, too uninspired by the other.

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