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RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (2009) *** movie review by COOP

Posted on March 18th, 2009
Posted on March 18th, 2009


I clearly remember watching the original “Escape to Witch Mountain” on a bootlegged VHS tape back in the early 80’s. The original film released in 1975 (just before my time) but I was delighted to finally discover the film about two super-powered alien kids trying to make it back to their spacecraft. After a forgotten TV remake in 1995, the “Witch Mountain” franchise has once again received a reboot, this time as “Race to Witch Mountain.”

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Jack, a down on his luck former race car driver and reformed criminal turned Las Vegas taxi cabbie. With the mob trying to coerce him back into a life of crime, Jack can hardly conceal his annoyance at having to drive dozens of nerds dressed up as aliens to the big “UFO Convention” in town. Suddenly, two strange teens show up in the back of his cab, hand him a large wad of cash and tell him to drive out into the desert. Black SUVs begin chasing them and soon Jack learns that his passengers are real-deal aliens running from the government. Worst of all, an evil alien assassin also pursues the otherworldly teens because they plan to stop an impending Earth invasion by the assassin’s military force. Out of his depth, Jack enlists the help of a kooky UFO expert (Carla Guigino) to help him return the kids to their ship which is being held in the top secret U.S. research base nicknamed Witch Mountain.

Compared to the original, “Race” has added three new elements: 1. A second threat (the assassin/invasion) to raise the stakes 2. A love interest (Guigino) for the male lead 3. A lot more action… Other than that, “Race” remains the same harmless, light, sci-fi story as “Escape.” Apart from adding anything substantial or meaningful, “Race” is a quality remake of the original. The original film had little or no redeeming value other than to entertain kids with a story that featured juveniles with powers. The only possible moral that could be gleaned from such a story is, “Don’t judge those who are different from you.” “Race” adds little more to that, but it does inject a great deal of excitement to the dated original.

Still, the film aims squarely at young teens on down into elementary school levels. It does little to try to impress anyone over those ages, despite the “Predator-like” alien assassin who blows up everything in sight (the carnage is bloodless and the villain doesn’t frighten in the least). “Race” does evoke a nostalgic 80’s vibe which will please any parents from that era by invoking similar films like “Explorers” (1985) and “Flight of the Navigator” (1986). Like those films, “Race” is fun, flashy and you don’t have to think about it too much. It’s even got a cool opening sequence showing real stock footage of UFO’s and interviews with witnesses, which sets an urgent tone.

The two teens, Sara and Seth (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig) play super-intelligent adults in cute teen bodies and they perform well to sell the illusion. Johnson once again plays himself, making it impossible to buy him as an ex-racecar driver since he beats up government agents and evil aliens with the skill of an ex-wrestler. His comedy skills haven’t evolved past a hit-or-miss level. The vastly underestimated Gugino once again gets a thankless role when she deserves a chance to prove herself in a meatier part. Villainous character actor Ciaran Hinds plays the mean government agent Burke, providing a perpetual frowny-face to boo, hiss and throw popcorn at. “Escape from Witch Mountain’s” original stars get notable cameos as the kind waitress Tina (Kim Richards) and a helpful sheriff, Tony (Ike Eisenmann).

No cursing, no gross-out humor, no innuendo; yet “Race” has halfway decent acting, nice special effects, tight pacing and lots of thrills. This is a kids movie a lot of parents can get behind, unlike nasty/annoying entries like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” or inappropriately frightening and bleak films like “Coraline.” It’s no “The Incredibles” or “Goonies,” but “Race to Witch Mountain” is certainly not boring.

To prime the kiddies, I’d recommend renting the original “Escape to Witch Mountain” and its excellent sequel, “Return from Witch Mountain,” starring Christopher Lee and Bette Davis as the villains. If your kids end up liking “Race,” introduce them to “Explorers” starring the young Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix. “Flight of the Navigator” co-starring a teenaged Sarah Jessica Parker is also a personal favorite of mine. These films could open up a whole new appreciation for the wonderful PG films of the 80’s; the heyday of family entertainment.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Check out this better than average trailer for “Race”…

Now take a look at the trailer for the similar, fun film “Flight of the Navigator”… Too bad the trailer makes the movie look lame…

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