"Return From Witch Mountian" opens a trifle inauspiciously with the arrival at a deserted Rose Bowl of a drably designed, all too literal flying saucer. After "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," it seems unwise of the Disney studio to rely on cut-rate spaceship models. It only invites suspicion about the ilusions to come.
Fortunately, the level of pictorial magic improves considerably as the movie rolls along. I missed the 1975 forerunner, "Escape to Witch Mountain," in which Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann originated the roles of superkids Tia and Tony, more or less assimilated siblings from a distant galaxy whose telepathic and telekinetic powers can produce wonders. Encountered now, they suggest general-audience variants on the psychic twins in Brian De Palma's R-rated shocker "The Fury."
Although both films emphasize tricks of levitation, "Return" keeps its expository feet on the ground in a way that always eludes the more flamboyant and less amiable "Fury." The plot of "Return" is sensibly contrived to set the supernatural siblings at odds with each other. An act of mercy leads to Tony's abduction by a power-hungry scientists, Christopher Lee, and his money-hungry accomplice, Bette Davis, Tia's attempts to contact and rescue her brother are opposed by Lee, who drugs the boy and installs some sort of brain contrl device with which to exploit him as a deadly robot.
The focus of dramatic identification in "The Fury" keeps getting blurred as it shifts from the psychic young people, played by Amy Irving and Andrew Stevens, to the boy's father, Kirk Douglas, and back again. Since Irving is the most appealing and sympathetic performer, this diffusion wastes a crucial source of human interest. By the time she's required to exact vengeance on the villain, her role has become so abstruct that the movie itself appears to sign off by flying spark.
"Return" isn't remotely as high-powered or distinctive a piece of film-making, but its story is certainly better rationalized and elaborated. Tia remains at the center of the melodrama, searching for the brother whose affinities and abilities are being controlled by a malevolent influence who means harm to her and society in general. Since this is a Disney adventure fantasy, all's well that ends well. Nevertheless, unwitting Tony and anxious Tia engage is some fairly spectacular telekinetic duels while the chase is on. In a De Palma thriller similar exertion might explode their brain synapses like a popper full of popcorn.
Ostensibly, Tia and Tony arrive in Pasadena for a week of sightseeing in Southern California. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann look so Disney-normal that it comes as a shock to realize that they're supposed to be dropping into a suburban setting rather than emerging from one. However, just as the trick photography, stop-animation and other special effects later in the film compensate for that tacky flying saucer, the action is played out against more varied and evocative settings than one anticipates.
"Candleshoe" opened in downtown Los Angeles locations that seemed unusually gritty for a Disney picture. Much of "Return" is photographed in the same area, utilizing the railroad yards, the warehouse district, rundown residences and a remarkable amount of the downtown skyline, such as it is. Jodie Foster was characterized as a delinquent in "Candleshoe." Kim Richards plays supernatural Wendy to a quartet of suburban Lost Boys who supposedly aspire to rough-and-tumble deliquency in the low-rent districts.
Evidently, the Disney organization is concerned with adding colorful realistic blemishes to the squeaky-clean suburban universe in which the company's juveniles used to frolic. It's not a bad idea, and it can probably be traced back to the box-office success of "The Bad News Bears." The fresh ingredients haven't been totally assimilated yet. Disney trying to toughen up is a little like Clint Eastwood trying to soften up in "The Gauntlet": a welcome but still awkward innovation.