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MOVIES

Movie Review: "Race to Witch Mountain"

A cabbie (Dwayne Johnson) and a scientist (Carla Gugino) help alien tweens (Alexander Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb) in
A cabbie (Dwayne Johnson) and a scientist (Carla Gugino) help alien tweens (Alexander Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb) in "Race to Witch Mountain." (By Ron Phillips -- Disney Enterprises Via Bloomberg News)
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By Jan Stuart
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 13, 2009

In the final spring of the Vietnam War, Disney rolled out a modest but pleasing fantasy about a pair of alien children with supernatural powers. Despite the participation of such old-school Hollywood players as Ray Milland and Eddie Albert, the studio was so antsy about the viability of their new film that they piggybacked it double feature-style with a rerelease of "Cinderella." Bibbidi-bobbidi-boo: "Escape to Witch Mountain" bloomed into a surprise Easter hit, spawned a sequel and lodged in the pop-culture data bank of the "Brady Bunch" generation.

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In the technologically souped-up and no less pleasing new version, screenwriters Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback have retooled the Alexander Key novel that provided fodder for the original as a vehicle for Dwayne Johnson. This is a good thing. The wrestler-formerly-known-as-the-Rock, equally at ease with the slicked-up horseplay of "Get Smart" or the indie-film satire of "Southland Tales," has emerged as one of showbiz's most relaxed and engaging leading men. He is that rare sports-world emigre to the big screen: beefcake with an unerring instinct for the absurd.

Johnson is a sly delight in "Race to Witch Mountain," playing an ex-con named Jack Bruno who has traded in his NASCAR dreams to drive a cab in Las Vegas. In between trundling sci-fi geeks to Planet Hollywood for a UFO convention -- this is Vegas in bustling, pre-recession mode -- Jack picks up a pair of anxious and controlling blond tweens named Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sara (AnnaSophia Robb, a Lindsay Lohan knockoff circa "Freaky Friday").

The kids brandish a fat wad of cash and address Jack in strenuously formal English that suggests C-3PO by way of Damon Runyon ("It is important that we gain much distance from this location"). "Ocean's Eleven" groupies on the lam from Beverly Hills High? Once Seth halts a pursuing SUV with his breastplate and Sara levitates Jack's tip change, however, it becomes clear that he is dealing with two strays from outer space who have crash-landed in the desert.

With U.S. government agents hot on his trail (led by a terminally scowling Ciaran Hinds), Jack endeavors to spirit his young charges back to their ship. He enlists the aid of a brassy astrophysicist (Carla Gugino) and a facetious UFO specialist (the shtick-happy Garry Marshall) who appears to have earned his doctorate at Henny Youngman U.

"Race to Witch Mountain" director Andy Fickman makes it clear from the propulsive opening credits that he means business with that velocity-minded title. In barely 15 minutes, vehicles are screeching and rolling over in the desert. And the movie has Johnson, who lifts the script above its conventional cat-and-mouse stratagems with his buoyant wiseacre timing.

Devotees of the "Witch Mountain" franchise may also be leavened to see Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, the alien kids from the 1975 original, face their successors in cameo turns as a roadhouse waitress and a sheriff. In economic hard times, even former child stars have to do what they can to keep on keepin' on.

Race to Witch Mountain (99 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations and some thematic elements.


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