Race To Witch Mountain review

Disney revisits its 1970s sci-fi outing in the formidable company of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson...

This new Disney remake is released just in time for the Easter holidays, but should you race to the cinema to see it?

Race To Witch Mountain is a carefully-executed, conservatively-pruned family flick, positioned just in time to fill the void over the Easter school break where vacationing parents don’t know what to do with their sugar-high spawn. It is a re-jig of the ‘classic’ 1970s movie Escape To Witch Mountain, re-modelled for the 2000s. Which means cutting out all distractions, like dialogue, characterisation and progression, in favour of thrills, adrenaline and excitement – yes, the ‘race’ part of the title is key.

It all starts with a UFO crash-landing in the desert outside of Las Vegas; the feds are spooked, and grim Man in Black Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds) barks orders with grave intensity. This is Big Stuff. Cut to Sin City cab driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne ‘Don’t Call Me Rock’ Johnson), who spends his days ferrying around the weirdos and losers that are attracted to the bright lights and geek conventions of Vegas; he’s repenting for his time as a wheelman for the mob, going straight after doing time. All this is set to change when he discovers two twins in the back of his taxi – two mysterious tween-y teens with strange powers and middle-distance stares, who need to get to the desert…

The film, essentially, is inoffensive tripe. The audience is bludgeoned by successions of pursuits, chases, car chases and running scenes – all with explosions aplenty. Director Andy Fickman does a real good job at keeping this a light, speedy 99 minutes. Whole scenes are rarely longer than five minutes, and ‘low moments’ (you know, boring stuff like talking) are kept to a definite minimum. Ex-Yes-man Trevor Rabin works wonders with a score that fuses electronic and rock influences to stirring orchestral flourishes, heavily underscoring all scenes with a sense of ADD-beating engagement.

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But for all of its technical thrills, Race To Witch Mountain is saddled with a script that perfunctorily sews together its action scenes, whilst keeping the whole shebang very wholesome-Disney. As mobster-turned-good, Jack Bruno is a horribly bland character, with all roguish undertones ironed out in favour of squeaky-clean heroics; Johnson, a real skyscraper of a man, does a good job, and is predictably at home in the moments of action and eyebrow-raised showmanship, but he is awkward in the shoehorned comedy sequences. Carla Gugino does well as the underdeveloped female scientist, Dr. Friedman, but simply doesn’t have enough screentime to flourish.

The two child-actors, Alexander Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb, do superbly well as the ethereal, otherworldly aliens Seth and Sara. In an interesting turn, the film casts its children as the mystery, with the adults as the empathetic links to the real world. But don’t expect anything mentally or morally taxing out of this film: it takes place in a world where dusty diners are soundtracked by Disney pop artists, where fired guns always miss targets, where mobsters are just big bullies, and where male and female leads must get together in the end – albeit without a kiss or a hint of sexuality. There are rumblings of depth, as the aliens refer to a ‘ruined atmosphere’ on their own world, but this is kept to a throwaway line which feels superfluous and pretentious.

Likewise, side characters and subplots, such as cameo performances from Cheech Marin and Garry Marshall, are short-changed in favour of bigger set-pieces. The ending wraps everything up nicely – while consolidating the numerous references to better films like Close Encounters…, Star Wars and ET – with a tearful goodbye and a romantic hug. And as the credits roll, it makes sure to set things up for a sequel.

Race to Witch Mountain is pure popcorn entertainment – all sugar and no substance – and looks veritably vapid in comparison to films by Pixar, Studio Ghibli, or family films that dare to ask questions of their viewers. It might just lower your IQ a tiny bit by watching it, but as diverting ‘what shall we do today, kids?’ nonsense, Race To Witch Mountain fills the time quite nicely.

Race To Witch Mountain opens in the UK on 10th of April.

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2 out of 5