Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Race to Witch Mountain / ** (PG)

Jack Bruno: Dwayne Johnson
Sara: AnnaSophia Robb
Seth: Alexander Ludwig
Dr. Alex Friedman: Carla Gugino
Henry Burke: Ciarán Hinds
Dr. Donald Harlan: Garry Marshall

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Andy Fickman. Written by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback. Based on the book “Escape to Witch Mountain” by Alexander Key. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG (for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements).

There’s an age where kids become aware of the universe. When they suddenly realize that Earth is but one location in a much larger reality, and from there the fascination with the possibility of life on other planets begins. For some this fascination remains only a childhood fantasy, for others it becomes a lifelong obsession. In the new Disney update “Race to Witch Mountain” there is a Las Vegas conference depicting a gathering of those in the latter category, but the film itself is geared primarily for those still experiencing the childhood fantasy.

I remember seeing Disney’s original “Escape to Witch Mountain” and its sequel “Return to Witch Mountain” as a kid. I was about the same age as my own son, who I brought along with me to the screening of this reboot. In the late seventies I watched the screen with the same look of wonder that glazed over my son’s eyes in this new movie. The magic of cinema and a world where aliens come to Earth in flying saucers work as well on this new generation as they did two and a half decades ago. But for the adult, who has matured as a movie watcher over the years, the puppet strings are a little too visible now.

A UFO crashes in the desert just outside Las Vegas. Men in black are immediately scuttled from a top-secret lab in Witch Mountain to contain the situation. Led by the ominous Henry Burke, the government tries to contain the crash to secrecy but the spaceship’s inhabitants get away. Ciarán Hinds (“Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) does his best not to gnash his teeth as Burke, but that’s really all that’s required of his character.

Meanwhile, Vegas cabbie Jack Bruno ends up with the alien fare. Sara (AnnaSophia Robb, “The Reaping”) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig, “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising”) look like two normal Arian teenagers, however they hold extraterrestrial skills that come in handy once the government goons catch up to the yellow cab. Bruno’s driving skills from his previous career as a pro racecar driver also help, but oddly he looks more like a former pro wrestler. Actually, Dwayne Johnson (“Get Smart”) is typically charming in the role but isn’t given enough to do beyond disbelieving the kids’ story and their otherworldly abilities.

As it turns out these aliens are on the run from the government of their own planet and need some earthlings to help them save both planets. Jack Bruno—the female alien insists on calling him by both his names as a sign she either doesn’t understand our naming traditions or isn’t intelligent enough to notice that this is unusual—doesn’t feel he has the know how to keep these kids alive, so he calls upon the help of an E.T. expert Dr. Alex Friedman. Carla Gugino (“Watchmen”) is also given little to do with this character.

In fact, under utilizing talented actors seems to be a goal of Andy Fickman, who previously directed Johnson on the 2007 football comedy “The Game Plan”. He also casts Cheech Marin (“Planet Terror”) as a mechanic who should be the most sought after in the world considering the miracles he performs on Jack’s cab. Tom Everett Scott (“Because I Said So”) is relegated to a near extra role as one of Burke’s stooges. And director Garry Marshall (“Keeping Up with the Steins”) is on hand to be Garry Marshall as an alien conspiracy nut.

The movie’s other weak point is its special effects, which are sometimes adequate and other times seem as if they were made for a low budget television show from about 20 years ago.

The film’s target audience will miss most of these quibbles. Ten-year-old boys (and maybe girls) will see an action packed adventure inspired by super powered visitors from outer space. And on that level, the movie is passable. It misses a good many opportunities to quip jokes at alien hunters and sci-fi convention geeks. The writers make a half-hearted sweep at these types of jokes, but they seem more interested in taking their rather basic story seriously. I’m not sure if more humor would have helped or hurt the movie, but it could’ve made it a little more interesting and given the actors a little more to do.

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