Film Review: Race to Witch Mountain

So it can be done. "Race to Witch Mountain" is a film from Walt Disney Pictures that doesn't play like a family film manufactured by the Disney machine. It plays, in fact, like a sci-fi action adventure that genre fans of all ages will recognize as such. It doesn't mind PG-rated violence, scary moments or even death threats issued by bad guys -- and good.

More importantly, it's entertaining with a crafty mixture of action, humor and drama. Coming on the tripped-up heels of a mediocre concert movie featuring a youth band lacking in spontaneity, "Witch Mountain" goes a long way toward re-establishing Disney's grasp on a youth market that seemed to be slipping away from the studio. Boxoffice should be strong well into Easter weekend.

The film is something of a remake of the studio's classic 1975 action caper "Escape to Witch Mountain." But director Andy Fickman and writers Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback have updated and reimagined the story to the point that this is very much a new "Witch's" brew.

This one stars Dwayne Johnson -- apparently he no longer bills himself as "The Rock" -- playing a down-on-his-luck Las Vegas cab driver who gives a lift to a couple of teens who happen to be extraterrestrial. Bad enough that mob foot soldiers are after the cabbie, but now government agents call on the powers of global tracking and Bush-era presidential authority to follow him and his passengers with ferocious if not lethal zeal.

In AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig, the moviemakers have cast two bright, highly photogenic youngsters who act with nonchalant charm yet as aliens speak an amusing English that is quite formal and lacks any colloquialisms. It's what one might expect from a foreign language perfectly learned but imperfectly understood.

The young aliens have two sets of enemies -- a Siphon, an assassination machine not unlike the Terminator, sent by their planet's military to liquidate them, and U.S. government operatives lead by a menacing authority figure in the stolid, gleaming-eyed person of Ciaran Hinds.

"No matter what they look like, they're not children," snaps Hinds. "Not even human." You can imagine parents throughout the theater nodding: We know exactly how he feels.

Actually these "children" have all sorts of magic powers, from making objects levitate to reading thoughts and passing through solid matter. Yet the film insists they somehow need this cabbie and, later, a discredited ufologist played by Carla Gugino, to escape their many pursuers so that they can reclaim their spacecraft, return home and thus save their planet as well as Earth.

Johnson makes an enjoyable companion on this roller coaster with Robb and Ludwig serving as excellent companions/foils for the trio's many comic moments. Droll appearances are made by Cheech Marin and Garry Marshall along with Kim Richards and Iake Eissinmann, the grownup kids from the original "Witch Mountain" movie.

One might wish Gugino's part had been written with more clarity and wit. And the film does stumble here and there with a dog picked up for no discernible reason or payoff, a gun being drawn in a casino without anyone noticing and a sci-fi convention that probably makes more fun of genre fans than a sci-fi movie should.

Never mind. The movie holds up thanks to intelligent direction, solid stunts and a lively sense of fun. Who cares if it doesn't always make sense?