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Race to Witch Mountain (2009): Blu-ray

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Saturday, Aug 1, 2009
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Race to Witch Mountain: Blu-ray

Director: Andy Fickman
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Ciarán Hinds, Carla Gugino

(Walt Disney Studios; US DVD: 4 Aug 2009; UK DVD: 4 Aug 2009)

In the far off, distant future, when film is no longer a question of celluloid or aluminum discs, historians will look at the Walt Disney Company with a combination of admiration and disdain. Without a doubt, no other Hollywood production dynasty has manufactured the kind of universally loved entertainment as the House of Mouse. For every minor fumble or commercial miscue, they’ve come up with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Pinocchio, Fantasia, and more recently, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Their partnership with Pixar (both before and after the merger) has resulted in ten near-perfect CG cartoons and they’ve continued to mine their massive vaults as inspiration for dozens of sequels, tie-ins, and newly formed classics.


And then there is the other side of Uncle Walt’s World, a viciously capitalistic enterprise that can’t leave its legacy alone.  Sure, every other studio in town marginalizes its past by pilfering it for unnecessary remakes and reimaginings. And it’s not really fair to point to Disney as the worst of these endless recyclers. While they may be the most prevalent in looking for ways to extend their various franchises, they are perhaps the most consistent in finding fairly successful ways of doing so. Case in point: Race to Witch Mountain. Though their live action efforts have never been the company’s cure-all, it makes perfect sense to take a slighted sci-fi series from three decades before and retrofit it to the talents of human tentpole Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. While it still smacks of an accounting, not artistic decision, we really don’t mind the diversion.


The former pro wrestler plays a failed race car driver named Jack Bruno. After falling in with the wrong criminal crowd, our measured man is trying to straighten out his life. As a cabbie in Las Vegas, he is still hounded by his past, but all that changes when seemingly desperate teens Sara and Seth show up in the back of his taxi. They offer him a large sum of money to drive out into the desert. He reluctantly agrees. Thus begins what is, in essence, an extended chase where the US Government, led by the evil Henry Burke, tries to capture the kids (who are in fact, aliens), and Jack does everything in his semi-super hero power to protect them. There are crashes and explosions, special effects and lots of jokes at the expense of geeks, nerds, and anyone enamored of all things speculative and fictional. Though he’s not a brilliant director, Andy Fickman (She’s the Man, The Game Plan) keeps things moving at a genial, agreeable pace.


But this doesn’t mean that Race to Witch Mountain is memorable. Or meaningful. In fact, it’s safe to say that this is the very definition of empty celluloid calories. Since it never intends to be anything other than adolescent fodder, a means of giving the slightly more mature members of the House of Mouse demo a sound movie experience, the lack of any substance doesn’t really matter. But when taken as part of a trend, when shown to suggest nothing more than a way for an already flush filmmaking concern to continuing minting money, it can’t help but seem superficial. From its cast to its creative team, Race to Witch Mountain is not an “E” ticket experience. Instead, this is the ride you take when The Haunted Mansion line is too long and you’ve already been to The Country Bear Jamboree.


It’s not Johnson’s fault. He’s a good enough guy and is more than capable of handling the action. Sure, Jack Bruno turns from troubled ex-con to steely man of action within ten minutes of the movie starting, and we never revisit the kind of brooding self-examination the introduction suggests. But at least Mr. Rock is not Carla Gugino. Rarely has such a sexy actress had her hots turned down as harshly as they are here. Instead of playing up her attractiveness, Fickman and the gang give her a dopey hairdo and an equally annoying personality to strip any last vestiges of ‘va-va-va-voom’ from her UFO expert persona. It’s not just that Gugino is better looking than she is here - she’s smarter, more assured, and far more appealing than the whiny waste she’s forced to play.


As our alien adolescents, AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig are fine, though only the former brings anything “otherworldly” to their performance. For the most part, they are meant to look wholesome and helpless, loaded with magic extraterrestrial powers but in desperate need of an adult male to manage their journey off planet. Since the movie is nothing but derivative, it stands to reason that a Terminator-like character (known as a Siphon) would show up to mandate Bruno’s beefed-up involvement, but even that threat is contained, kept to balls of electrified fire and the occasional laser blast. As the more human villain, Irishman Ciarán Hinds is stripped of his dignity, and his accent, to play a bland bureaucrat.


Even embellished by the blu-ray experience (Disney really excels at the new home theater format), Race to Witch Mountain still feels small. It’s not meant to be epic, or broach the kind of cosmic scope that other recent sci-fi offerings like Knowing have attempted. In many ways, Fickman is making Dick and Jane’s first experience with extraterrestrials - scary without being shocking, exciting without being overwhelming. Even with the obvious nods to the ‘70s original (former child stars Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann reappear here as residents of a small California town) and the upgrade in visuals, one still gets the sense of a TV movie blown up to big screen proportions. It doesn’t undermine the efforts genial entertainment value, but hardly trying and barely succeeding are not honorable artistic badges to wear.


In some ways, it’s no longer just to court Disney as a purveyor of quality family filmmaking. Sure, they can stumble upon genius once in a while - almost always with the help of outside auteurs - but for the most part, there is very little distinction between the grist mill movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and the nominal titles taking up theatrical space in the post-millennial marketplace. Granted, Race with Witch Mountain is not Boatniks or Super Dad, but it hardly qualifies as a timeless keeper - and under the current corporate model, that suits Mr. Mickey’s men just fine. There was once a time when a ‘Walt Disney’ title suggested classicism and creative daring. Today, it’s all commerciality and accounting ink. Race with Witch Mountain is an enjoyable byproduct of such stresses. It’s as hit and miss as the minds who made it.


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