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Movies: Race to Witch Mountain

“Race to Witch Mountain” is an interesting and ultimately successful retread of a franchise that goes back over 30 years to 1975’s “Escape to Witch Mountain” (and assorted theatrical and TV sequels and remakes). It’s very much a movie for kids, tweens, and the less cynical or gore-hungry teens, but it has themes and details that are designed to be appreciated by the adults in the audience, albeit probably the more left-leaning adults.

While many family movies pander to adults with mild (or worse) sexual innuendos or raunchy sight gags, “Race to Witch Mountain” is refreshingly free of any content that requires awkward explanations in the car on the way home. Instead, adults get lightweight cameos from the likes of Cheech Marin and Garry Marshall, neither of which is likely to be recognized by the movie’s primary target demographic. Additionally, the story is geared towards our current times and political climate and is notably different than the originals.

To the best of my recollection, in the original movies, the villains were scheming megalomaniacs of that generic kids’ movie bad guy type. It’s a product of our time that a movie like this gets remade with a mysterious government agency, armed with black helicopters and the Patriot Act, as the villain. Even the alien homeworld is depicted as having a short-sighted government and military, and the problem that has caused the visit to earth is related to rampant climate change. This probably isn’t a movie outing of choice for the local chapter of the young Republicans.

At its core, it’s still about a couple of aliens who look like human teenagers and who have powers that include telekinesis, telepathy, and the ability to pass through solid objects. After crashing near Las Vegas, the Disney-perfect duo, played by AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) and Alexander Ludwig (The Seeker: The Dark is Rising), pick the cab of Jack Bruno (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson). Bruno is skeptical about these unsupervised kids carrying large sums of money, but he’s the ex-con cabbie with a heart of gold, and he gets dragged into their circumstances largely because he’s a nice guy.

The story is surprisingly well set up, with Bruno’s own backstory involving a group of generic thugs who, from a distance, are conveniently confused with the government agents who are tracking the kids, so Bruno initially thinks it’s him that’s being followed and not them. Las Vegas is also the coincidental venue for a marvelously geeky sci-fi convention (there’s some redundancy there) that acts as a neat background and plot point for a story about actual alien visitors. (Apparently the sci-fi crowd hasn’t received a government financial bailout and then been spanked for running off to Vegas for a meeting!)

“Race to Witch Mountain” is a perfect vehicle for Dwayne Johnson, who has been at his best so far with light and fun material that benefits from his apparent easy-going nature. He’s an actor who recognizes the source of his fame (as a professional wrestler) and doesn’t seem to have image hang-ups – as evidenced by his very loose appearances on “Saturday Night Live.” The two young actors in the movie are better than they might appear at first sight, required to play very awkward roles as characters who are not familiar with local language and customs, with the resultant stiffness being part of the act. Robb, in particular, already has an impressive resume and is a noteworthy actor in her age range.

Add an appealing dog, a Terminator/Predator-lite-like assassin, amusing tertiary characters, fun chases and loud but gore-free action, in addition to a storyline that already has appeal for kids of both genders, and you have a solid entry in the pantheon of family entertainment. This isn’t high-brow or an action film for fans more likely to enjoy the current “Watchmen” release, but it isn’t intended to be either and it works extremely well in the context of what it’s attempting to be.  (Opens March 13)


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