March 19, 2009

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Race to Witch Mountain (PG)
Dwayne “don’t call him The Rock” Johnson tries to help two alien children find their way home in Race to Witch Mountain, a cutesy little sci-fi for the tiny Trekker.

Jack Bruno (Johnson) is a Las Vegas taxicab driver with a dicey past but a desire to stay on the straight and narrow, even though goons are pressuring him to “do one more job for Mr. Wolf” or some such thuggery. He’s unfazed by the attempts to bully him and unfazed by the general craziness of Vegas — from the Storm Troopers heading to a UFO convention to a comely scientist, Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), who is speaking at the convention in an attempt to get the discussion away from abductions, cow mutilations and the like and on to actual scientific inquiry into the existence of life on other planets. Yeah yeah, Jack says, please pay your fare. What does weird him out a little bit is when two blonde youngsters — Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) — appear in his car with a wad of cash and a strangely articulate request to head into the desert. Though suspicious, Jack takes off and despite the siblings’ (as we learn they are) weird demeanor, when black SUVs appear and start running down the taxi, Jack thinks it’s Mr. Wolf coming to do some more “convincing.” Only later, when the twins also find themselves chased by what appears to be an off-brand Predator, does it dawn on Jack that they’re the ones being hunted — both by earthbound government authorities and by a deadly, armored sci-fi knockoff.

Once the whole “they’re really aliens?” question is dealt with, we get to the heart of the young teens’ quest: they have to find their space ship (which they crashed on arrival and which they think the government has) and get home to prevent an invasion of Earth.

Remember Flight of the Navigator? Kid, spaceship, adventure that riffed a bit on E.T. That movie, also a Walt Disney sci-fi-for-young-readers-style flick, came to mind while I watched this movie, in part because my memories of it aren’t quite as hazy as my memories of the Escape to Witch Mountain that came out in 1975. But generally, those previous-generaton youngster sci-fi movies are where this movie is coming from — action, adventure and space, with kids. This movie has fewer life lessons, fewer down-beat emotional moments than those movies and, perhaps because of Dwayne Johnson’s stardom, it leans more on the adults. As a result, there’s a bit of charm missing. Though it possesses modern special effects, there’s a very late 1970s through Tron-era look to it all, which gives it more of a hokey retro feel than the story actually has. Unfortunate, because that kind of silly “lasers! pew pew!” quality could have also helped to up the charm factor here.

Underneath the red-and-blue lighting, Johnson’s engaging hamminess and, of course, a cute bit with a dog, Race to Witch Mountain has a lot of guns and bad guys and chases. I’ve noticed that trailers lean on the family-friendly humor but “the car chase followed by explosion followed by foot-chase”-action is much more prevalent. It’s as though someone decided that Johnson would take care of likeability, the score would take care of creating wonder (you’d think we were getting our first look at Jurassic Park or watching E.T. fly past the moon with all the swelling music) and the rest of the movie would speed walk through the stunts and action. Gugino, who appeared in the mostly excellent Spy Kids movie, really just served, here, as a reminder that kid movies can have more depth than this one does.

For all that I wouldn’t add this movie to my list of films kids absolutely must watch, I do think that my 8-year-old stepson (who is plenty fine with guns, mostly knows the difference between real and fake and is big on dog humor) would be reasonably entertained at Race to Witch Mountain. It is sci-fi in the cutesiest of ways and probably has enough action to keep little swashbucklers in their seats. C+

Rated PG for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations and some thematic elements. Directed by Andy Fickman and written by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback (from the book Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key), Race to Witch Mountain is an hour and 38 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Buena Vista Pictures. It opens wide on Friday, March 13.