WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Disney takes another whack at “Witch Mountain” having found success more than three decades ago with Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel. Now the story has been contemporized and Bourne-ified to create what is essentially a nonstop breathless race across long winding roads and two worlds competing for superiority. As in the original two children with extraordinary powers seek to save Earth and their own planet from evil forces. They waste no time jumping into a hapless Las Vegas taxi driver’s cab ordering him to put the pedal to the metal. It soon becomes clear the secret to their quest lies somewhere in Witch Mountain a place where top-secret government activity has been going on for years. With their own alien military leaders in favor of a violent takeover and the U.S. leaders ready for confrontation these two teens Sara and Seth plus their cabbie Jack Bruno race against time to find a better solution for both of their worlds.
WHO’S IN IT?
Fast becoming Disney’s go-to guy Dwayne Johnson (formerly known as The Rock) follows up his hit football comedy The Game Plan with another family-oriented tale in which he again gets upstaged by kids. His Jack Bruno proves the perfect foil this time as he gets to be funny cynical commanding and heroic all in the course of about 97 minutes. As events careen out of his control Johnson grows increasingly exasperated and that’s part of the fun. As Sara a smart extraterrestrial teen Anna-Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) is ideally cast bringing a nice believability to the role without falling into stereotypes. Seth is well played but with one-note earnestness by Alexander Ludwig who still comes off a little too robotic at times. As an astrophysicist who gets caught up in the trio’s predicament Carla Gugino is a delight. Lead among the antagonists is Irish actor Ciaran Hinds who is properly mean and heartless when it comes to aliens of any stripe. Director Garry Marshall has an amusing cameo as a self-styled UFO expert and there are brief but welcome appearances by the all-grown-up Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann who played the ‘70s incarnation of the alien kids in the earlier films. Richards’ face-to-face meeting with Robb is especially sweet.
The filmmakers wisely keep the retro tone of the book and earlier films while using state-of-the-art visual effects and movie magic. A lot of sci-fi movies have come along since Escape to Witch Mountain premiered in 1975 – see Star Wars Close Encounters and E.T. And while Witch Mountain circa 2009 won’t do anything to make us forget those classics it’s good fun -- like welcoming back an old friend.
There’s no complexity in sight and the story isn’t given a lot of time to breathe. We barely get to know Jack Bruno before the kids have hijacked his cab and the whirlwind begins. A little more exposition and plot development would have been welcomed for those with an attention span beyond two minutes.
There are lots of first-rate action set pieces including a collision with a train and a chase through a Vegas casino but the climactic spaceship battle can’t be topped. Kids are going to eat this sequence up.
After showing Jack her alien prowess for the first time by making various items in his cab float in mid-air Sara says “you humans don’t move objects because you don’t develop your full brain capacity”. Bruno replies “No I don’t do it because it’s kind of creepy.”
Skeeter Bronson (Adam Sandler) is a handyman at a hotel his father once owned. When Skeeter’s dad sold it to Mr. Nottingham (Richard Griffiths) it was with the proviso that Skeeter would one day become manager but unfortunately the job is given to Skeeter’s main nemesis Kendall (Guy Pearce). But Skeeter’s luck is about to change. While babysitting for his niece and nephew (Laura Ann Kesling and Jonathan Morgan Heit) Skeeter starts telling them bedtime stories that come to life the next day using characters from his real life including the kids and their mom’s best friend Jill (Keri Russell). Set in Medieval Times Ancient Greece the Old West -- and even outer space -- the stories usually show Skeeter triumphing over the bad guys like The Booger Monster and Sir Buttkiss. And beware of raining gum balls; it’s that kind of movie. Adam Sandler’s teaming with Disney is an inspired idea since his humor has always had a juvenile Jerry Lewis-style flavor -- even in his more adult-oriented comedies. Leaving the gross-out comedy behind this time Sandler proves he is a perfect fit for this kind of harmless rather broad PG-formula family flick that should prove to be loads of fun for the youngest audience members. He’s a riot in some of the get-ups he is forced to wear coming off best in the Ancient Greece sequence. Keri Russell is sweet and attractive as a foil for a lot of Sandler’s hijinks while Courteney Cox as Skeeter’s uptight sister is given virtually nothing to do in the mom role. The kids are cute in a Disney Channel kind of way but often seem a little precocious for their own good. Work colleagues are played rather one dimensionally by Pearce and Griffiths but they all seem to be having fun inhabiting various stereotypical characters in the stories. Teresa Palmer is lovely as the owner’s daughter and the innocent object of Skeeter’s affections. Director Adam Shankman (Hairspray) brings lots of color and verve to the film but knows what Sandler fans expect -- even in a kids comedy. Giving the film a necessary light touch he ably moves it along through the various set pieces and special effects sequences that are required to bring all these imaginative shenanigans to life. Similar in many ways to Ben Stiller’s Night at the Museum the production values of the bedtime stories at the film’s center don’t seem to be as elaborate or technically savvy as they might have been with a larger budget. Still the cast seems to be having a great time and it’s all in the name of some harmless fun that parents should feel safe taking their kids to this holiday season.