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.”
If there’s one positive thing about Delta Farce is that is actually follows a tried and true comedy formula-- namely the fish-out-of-water scenario—with moderate success. Down on his luck after losing his job and his girlfriend on the same day Larry (of the Cable Guy variety) decides to join his neighbor Bill (Bill Engvall) and his combat-happy buddy Everett (DJ Qualls) for a relaxing weekend of playing army. But when the three unlucky guys are mistaken for Army Reservists they’re loaded onto an army plane headed for Iraq--and mistakenly ejected in a Humvee somewhere over Mexico. Don’t ask. Convinced they’re actually in the Middle East the clueless wannabe soldiers turn into Magnificent Seven meets the Three Amigos and save a rural village from a siege of bandits proving to be real heroes after all. If you need to laugh at the war on terror you might as well do it with Larry the Cable Guy. He serves up his particular brand of comedy making light of a bad situation. In fact not only does he come off somewhat sympathetically as the hapless boob with a heart of gold he also gets the hot chick at the end of the movie. Go Larry! As his accomplice fellow stand-up Bill Engvall follows his own comic routine playing a hen-pecked trailer trash denizen who views this adventure as a great way to escape his overbearing wife and snotty kids. As the third doofus DJ Qualls (Hustle & Flow) plays a trigger-happy wannabe jarhead who sees this opportunity as a way to gain some street cred. And in a supporting role Danny Trejo a Robert Rodriguez regular pokes fun at his scary looks as the leader of the marauding bandits aptly named Carlos Santana. Yes the jokes are plenty. Director C.B.Harding is obviously a Larry the Cable Guy crony since his only other feature film credit is the Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie. Honestly all that’s really required of him is to point and shoot with maybe a few action sequences to coordinate here and there. But while the formula works as a cohesive movie having to sit through Delta Farce’s comic stylings is the tricky part. What it really boils down to is whether you’re a fan of Larry the Cable Guy. If so you’ll (I would hope) realize you’re watching a pretty stupid comedy but will laugh in the appropriate parts. If not I would really wonder what the heck you are doing sitting in the theater.
Let's just say there aren't any surprises in Stealing Harvard. You pretty much know what you are in for when you sit down. John Plummer (Jason Lee) is a good-hearted fellow who just wants to marry his longtime fiancée Elaine Warner (Leslie Mann). He works hard for her father (Dennis Farina) at a medical supply store but Mr. Warner is less than happy with his future son-in-law. Still John finally gets his wish when he and Elaine reach the $30 000 mark she made them save so they could marry and buy their dream house. That's it? We can go home now? Alas no. A snag in their plans comes when John's niece Noreen (Tammy Blanchard) gets accepted to Harvard and his trailer-trash sister Patty (Megan Mullally) reminds him of his promise to help pay for Noreen's education--to the tune of $29 800. D'oh! Since John can't disappoint Elaine and Noreen he asks his best friend Duff (Tom Green) to help him try to get hold of another 30 grand. Duff agrees of course but accomplishing this feat legitimately is simply not an option. As Duff's plans to turn them into petty criminals fail each and every time John becomes increasingly desperate. What will he do? And more importantly do we care?
As an actor Jason Lee has made some curious choices. Sticking with director Kevin Smith (Chasing Amy Dogma) has been a smart move as well as scooping up a choice role in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. But he's made some pretty bad choices as well--Kissing A Fool Big Trouble and now Stealing Harvard. The material is way beneath him. John is too milquetoast for Lee's smart-ass style and it doesn't suit him at all. There is another reason Lee should have just walked away from this one--being in a movie with Tom Green. Green's Duff does manage to elicit a few laughs here and there but the comic actor who once touched a very eclectic funny bone in many people has now become a parody of himself. And an annoying one at that. Mann (George of the Jungle) does some interesting things with her character Elaine. You don't really like the uptight daddy's girl much in the beginning but then she blossoms and changes showing Mann's comic abilities nicely. John C. McGinley as the detective who goes after the two boneheads and Mullally as the slutty Patty both turn in funny performances. Farina however is completely wasted which is a shame.
OK so there are a few times in Stealing Harvard where you actually laugh out loud. You've seen most of them in the trailer but they are funny nonetheless. Duff and John trying to choose their code names Duff getting smashed up against the window John dressed as a woman. There are also a couple of moments you don't see in the trailer that kind of make you chuckle like when McGinley's detective explains what he actually uses the toothbrush for that Duff put in his mouth and pretty much all the scenes with Mullally. They are however few and far between. For the most part Harvard sticks to its insipid and completely ridiculous script and run-of-the-mill direction by Kids In the Hall alum Bruce McCulloch. For us hardened critics it's hard to have our intelligence insulted even for a forced laugh. But for some out there this could just be the kind of mindless entertainment they crave.