This is not Disney’s first encounter with Witch Mountain, and it most certainly won’t be their last. However, it’s their loudest contribution to date. A reimagining of the 1975 motion picture and the 1968 Alexander Key novel, “Race to Witch Mountain” does away with all that pesky character development stuff to put the pedal to the metal and offer family audiences an adventure packed with stunts, gunfire, and one-liners. It’s definitely a vibrant diversion, and kids will undoubtedly be glued to the screen, but the high tech, fist-happy approach leaves much to be desired.
Crash landing on Earth, alien siblings Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) are desperate to retrieve a device their planet needs to survive. To reach their ultimate destination of Witch Mountain, the pair enlists the help of Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson), who’s trying to avoid any trouble that would land him back in prison. With Department of Defense goons (led blandly by Ciaran Hinds) and an interstellar bounty hunter nipping at their heels, Jack becomes protective of his extraterrestrial charges and fights for their safety, eventually seeking assistance from discredited astrophysicist Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino, fighting an awful wig) to help him return the teens home safely.
“Race to Witch Mountain” has little in common with its even-tempered, low-budget forefathers. The new film is made with the Playstation generation in mind, as director Andy Fickman (“The Game Plan”) lays down colorful lights and CG tweaks to lavishly ornament the world before he promptly destroys it all. “Race” is an action film at its core, valuing the beauty of mayhem over the anchor of character composition. The plot is spelled out in minimal detail, only there to provide a motive for the stunts, while the rest of the picture is in a constant state of alert, ready to take the audience on a wild ride as Sara and Seth battle their way back to their spaceship.
The newfound pacing is certainly not a bad thing, giving the material a needed kick in the pants when the script stops needlessly to smell the plastic flowers. Fickman masterminds a thrill ride atmosphere for “Race” that keeps the film free from overt boredom, preferring the characters endure constant movement on freeways, casino floors, and around the titular mountain to lure the viewer in. This vigor sacrifices any emotional content, and the absence of heart reverberates throughout the movie.
Unfortunately, most of the holes set aside for sentiment are replaced by comedy, with Johnson the vessel for scripted and unscripted spit-takes that lack spice; he is consistently dropping the ball with his feeble reactions to mass hysteria. “Race” is more a film you want to laugh with than actually do, cruelly leaving wide open spaces for the cast to land a gut-buster or two, only to see everyone fumble their shot. With spirited performances all around, it’s not for lack of trying. It’s just impossible to believe that with this much effort on display, not a single punchline scores.
While the shootouts and sprinting manage to entertain in a decidedly PG fashion, Fickman’s little touches stuffed into the corners of the frame lend “Race” the personality it dearly needs. Most notably, cameos by the original “Witch Mountain” kids, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, help to liven up the proceedings with a little retro magic. And an appearance by author/alien abduction survivor Whitley Strieber gooses the space invader goofiness of the premise. However, the one appearance that completely blindsided me was Meredith Salenger, who pops up for a few seconds as “Natalie Gann,” a television reporter. Now there’s a lovely sentimental moment.
Granted, “Race to Witch Mountain” can become a little numbing at times, particularly during any extended staging of fisticuffs. Perhaps it should come as little surprise that the director of “The Game Plan” and “She’s the Man” doesn’t have much skill staging fight choreography. The movie is best appreciated as a flashy chase film of continuous peril. It’s hardly a suitable replacement for the earlier installments, yet it doesn’t exactly embarrass the franchise either.