Film Review: Race to Witch Mountain

Las Vegas cabbie helps two children thwart an alien invasion. Clever updating of a 1970s Disney franchise, with a good cast and plenty of action.

An adroit blend of action and science fiction, Race to Witch Mountain updates the story and characters in Alexander Key's novel for a new generation of viewers, one accustomed to videogames and in-jokes. With an appealing cast and acceptable special effects, it will perform well with Disney's target audience.

Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson), a disgruntled Las Vegas taxicab driver, finds himself with two unusual passengers, siblings Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sara (AnnaSophia Robb). Lured by the promise of easy money, he drives them deep into the desert, where they come under attack by federal agents led by the mysterious Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds). Escaping through Seth's paranormal powers, they drive to a deserted shack, where Bruno discovers that his charges are aliens committed to preventing an invasion that will wipe out humanity.

The Siphon (Tom Woodruff, Jr.), a Terminator-like assassin, prompts a retreat to Las Vegas, where Bruno consults with astrophysicist Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino). It will take help from another alien "expert," Dr. Donald Harlan (Garry Marshall), before Bruno, Friedman and the children can infiltrate a secret government installation near Witch Mountain, where the key to stopping the invasion lies.

In classic Disney style, the plot is both a quest to establish a nuclear family and a means to explain away death. New to the format: warnings about global warming, and a willingness to grab whatever worked in other sci-fi adventures. Director Andy Fickman keeps the film moving quickly enough so that younger viewers may not notice the story's larger themes. However, Fickman has trouble hiding the plot holes, like why the children don't use their powers more frequently, or why the feds have such unsavory motives. Special effects dominate the Witch Mountain sequences, and while they are fun, they don't feel especially original. More promising is an extended chase through a UFO convention involving three different sets of villains.

The film marks another stage in the career of Dwayne Johnson, the football player and wrestler formerly known as The Rock. Reunited with his Game Plan director Fickman, Johnson displays both depth and assurance, only occasionally pushing too hard on his charm. The screenplay provides more background than usual for his role, explaining in detail why he glowers through the first half of the story. The PG rating forces him to pull his punches, and once the special effects take over he is essentially reduced to a spectator. But Johnson's enthusiasm is infectious, and as his acting continues to improve, he has earned the right to better parts.

Garry Marshall's turn, little more than a cameo, evokes the original Witch Mountain films, which featured elderly actors like Ray Milland and Bette Davis. Fans of Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain can spot stars Kim Richards and Iake (formerly Ike) Eissinmann in small but important roles. The real standout in the cast is AnnaSophia Robb, whose limpid eyes and unruffled demeanor are signs of a genuine movie star.