Apr 11, 2009

Race To Witch Mountain [PG]

Dir: Andy Fickman
This high concept kids movie remake is basically one long chase. Two kids (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig), who turn out to be aliens whose spaceship has crashed, get into Dwayne Johnson’s cab, and for the next hundred minutes the three are chased to Witch Mountain, which hides a replacement spaceship, by Ciaran Hinds and his band of black suited government agents.

Escape to Witch Mountain and Return to Witch Mountain were made in the mid 70’s, and are apparently well loved family classics. I’ve never seen them, but I’ll admit I was disappointed to see that, for the most part, this is just one more entirely generic remake. Watching this movie I often flashed back to 15 years ago and our family trip to Disneyworld. The experience of Race to Witch Mountain is often like that of a broken theme park ride. The images are playing on screen, but the hydraulics that move the seats to put you in the experience aren’t working, and so it ends up being no more than a barrage of images. That’s a shame, because chase movies can work (look at the first three Indiana Jones films, which are incredibly kinetic and involving).

The problem here is that so much in the chase sequences feels obviously fake. There’s a lot of projection and other digital bells and whistles used, and you miss the physical feel of a real car chase. The best of these movies make you feel like you are on a thrill ride, Race to Witch Mountain makes you feel like you are watching someone else go on a thrill ride.

This isn’t to say that the film is a dead loss, and it has a few decent trump cards up its sleeve. Dwayne Johnson - the artist formerly known as The Rock - may have made some pretty bad movies, but he is a genuinely engaging screen presence. He’s got the kind of down to earth charm that made Will Smith an irresistible force at the box office, and his talents are very well suited to this sort of family actioner. There’s not a great deal of depth to his performance, and he’s not a subtle performer, but he is genuine, and fun to watch. Johnson is well matched by AnnaSophia Robb, so boundlessly impressive in Bridge to Terabithia. She’s not massively stretched here, but the precision of her delivery and the way she manages to make even the most mundane lines sound a little off makes her status as an alien quite believable. The rest of the cast have less to do, but they do it perfectly well, and appropriately tto the freewheeling tone of the film. Particular praise, though, is due Ciaran Hinds, who I’m beginning to think really can do anything. He makes a great villain here, and a reasonably shaded one at that.

The film is at its best when it slows down for a while. There’s a lovely scene in a diner between Johnson and the kids (in which the original film’s stars pop up in cameos), and that and any other character scenes work nicely, it’s almost a shame that there is so much action in the movie, because that side of things quickly gets repetitive, making the film as a whole feel overstretched (at just under 100 minutes). With perhaps 20 minutes shorn from its running time this would be better, leaner and more evenly paced. Kids will probably have fun regardless, and parents could do worse over Easter, but aside from Johnson and Robb there’s little to see here.

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