Friday, March 13, 2009

Review: "Race to Witch Mountain"

I’m guessing nobody arrives in Hollywood looking to make their mark and thinks, “My big dream is to do the remake of a modestly successful kid’s action flick from 30-odd years ago.”

OK, so “Race to Witch Mountain” ain’t David Lean. But this aliens-as-teenagers romp sets such low expectations for itself, you almost feel a little pity for it. Not as sorry as for anyone over the age of 12 who has to sit through it, of course.

This remake of 1975’s “Escape to Witch Mountain” is made (barely) passable by the presence of Dwayne Johnson, the former wrestler who’s morphed into a family-friendly Disney action star. Once it became clear that he wasn’t content to be another musclehead ultra-violent action star a la Schwarzenegger or Stallone, Johnson drifted to more comedic and offbeat roles, like a gay bodyguard in “Be Cool.” He has a natural easygoing charisma, and his willingness to engage in wholesale self-mockery helps an audience take a shine to him.

Of course, when you’re six-and-a-half feet tall and built like the former pro defensive tackle he is, Johnson can’t be cast in dweeb roles. (I doubt he and Johnny Depp are competing for parts.) So in “Race,” he plays a tough ex-con who drives a taxi in Las Vegas. Then the siblings from outer space jump into his cab, and we’re off to the races.

And this movie is one big long race. There’s car crashes, fist fights and plenty of explosions, although nothing remotely disturbing. I suppose the blend of non-bloody action and winsome kids with super-powers will appeal to the wee set. But for their parents, it quickly becomes a tedious circle of tired stunts.

The alien duo are played by AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig, in hyper-bright blonde hairdos. They talk in funny perfect English – “We require the transportation services of your vehicle” – but are childlike enough to pick up a stray dog along the way for no good reason at all. (I can just hear a producer giving the screenwriters notes: “Hey, kids like dogs. Can we give them a pooch?”)

The girl alien, Sara, can levitate stuff and read minds, while her brother Seth can walk through doors by changing his molecules around. They’re here on Earth to bring back clues about how to solve their own environmental problems; otherwise, the aliens are going to invade and conquer the humans. They have to get back to their planet in time to save this one.

Carla Gugino shows up as a UFO expert who’s the only one who will believe these Mentos-fresh teens are really from outer space – and to make moony eyes at Johnson, of course, with Sara as the mind-reading matchmaker. “She thinks you’re very handsome … and smarter than you think you are.”

Of course, there’s a nefarious government stooge (Cirian Hinds) out to capture the extra-terrestrials and turn them into a junior high dissection experiment. In scenes that are becoming overly familiar at the movies now, the feds ride around in black SUVs and use computers to seemingly track the movement of every person on earth, all the time.

The other heavy is an alien assassin sent to prevent the kids from accomplishing their mission. He has creepy black armor and laser blasters on his wrists and looks really ugly without his mask, and is pretty much a total rip-off of the dude from “Predator.”

“Race to Witch Mountain” is harmless fare – fun for kids, blandly entertaining, not violent enough to get worked up about. But is it really necessary?

2 stars out of four


  1. It's just not Witch Mountain without a flying Winnebago.

  2. The new version definitely has some snazzier special effects. And there is a Winnebago, although sadly it remains decidedly earthbound.