“Race to Witch Mountain” – Good Start…Weak Finish – 2 & ½ popcorns

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popcornBy Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Just out of the blocks this latest permutation of author Alexander Key’s sci-fi fantasy sparkles with newfound energy. “How novel,” we opine. However, once director Andy Fickman’s “Race to Witch Mountain” has unfurled all its 21st century refurbishments, the script assumes the repetitious ordinariness common to a game of Chutes and Ladders.

Still, valiantly staving off the film’s same ole, same ole nature longer than Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback’s script deserves is a bright-eyed cast, its keenest orbs peering out from Dwayne Johnson’s signature scowl. Oft on the receiving end of his faux ire, AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig complete the thespic complement.

Mr. Johnson is Jack Bruno, a Las Vegas taxi driver. In and out of juvie as a kid, he’s just recently extricated himself from the mob’s clutches. Now he just wants to play it straight and lay low. Thus it only figures he’ll soon be implicated in a fracas of interplanetary consequences. It begins when Sara and Seth hail his cab.

Seemingly nice young teens on initial blush, the first thing that delivers static to Mr. Bruno’s antennae is the fat bankroll they present as enticement for his services. Secondly, and even odder, they don’t quite know the address of their desert mountain destination…just the latitude and longitude. OK, so kids are weird. Drive, they said.

He complies. And then things get too strange to ignore…like the dudes in the dark glasses following them in the expensive machinery. Hmm, must be the Mafiosos in denial about his retirement. Chase scene #1 ensues. Deciding they must aid their ride, the kids perform some bits of molecular manipulation. No usual parlor tricks are these.

Whew…close call. But that’s it. Jack wants to know the skinny. Sara, winsomely evoked by Miss Robb, says they can trust the Earthling. Seth, perhaps emanating from the Missouri section of his planet, adopts a show-me attitude. Nevertheless, as Rick once remarked to Captain Renault, it looks like this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Even after the chemistry can no longer buoy the saga along, one can’t help note Mr. Johnson’s likeability. His unselfish style results in a winning persona more complex than its outward simplicity would suggest. While he doth demur as concerns his abilities, by now we know you don’t mess with The Rock. The result is its very own sort of swagger.

Possessing some cool powers of their own, Sara and Seth play against the human’s incredulity and goodwill with notable aplomb. But good thing the three affiliate. Because Ciarán Hinds’s mean Henry Burke, ace guv’mint spaceman chaser, has that come to your house 3 o’clock in the morning face. In earlier times he’d be chasing down Jean Valjean.

Breaking no new ground in alien visitation plots, the transubstantiated teens explain their mission. Yep, it’s the old dying planet story, but mercifully with a twist. While their hometown leaders originally thought to simply invade Earth, the kids represent a green contingent that now feels restorative properties found in our world can save theirs.

But alas, even lands across the Milky Way have a Cheney element, and that sets hurdles. They maintain total conquest of Earth is the only answer and have sent a hitman-android specifically designed for that purpose to do their bidding. Which means the crew has to fight their war on two fronts. Happily, they gain a fourth wheel in Dr. Alex Friedman.

Portrayed by Carla Gugino, the expert in extraterrestrial possibilities just happens to be in Vegas to lecture at the UFO convention underway. Once she’s in tow, what ostensibly becomes a feature length chase scene switches over to automatic pilot. The usual clichés, mechanisms and ploys are perfunctorily paraded before us, with few surprises in store.

Still, for children old enough to understand but young enough to see this PG-rated film’s good intentions through eyes not yet jaded, “Race to Witch Mountain” indeed comes in peace. While fans of the original Disney products—“Escape to Witch Mountain” (1975) and “Return to Witch Mountain” (1978) — may cry sacrilege, the essence survives.

Like much of good sci-fi, it’s a humanitarianism that for the most part distinguished writer Alexander Key’s works. Metaphors and allegories related through intergalactic adventure teach lessons of tolerance and understanding. And, just to be sure that Johnny doesn’t get too idealistic, he’s warned about those folks who aren’t quite so enlightened.

Therefore, parents, grandparents and nannies on a mission to educate whilst entertaining should consider that, while they might intermittently doze after the premise runs out of solid fuel, their good deed won’t be punished with an inequitable amount of ennui. Seen from that perspective, the “Race to Witch Mountain” can be a winning proposition.

“Race to Witch Mountain,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Pictures release directed by Andy Fickman and stars Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig. Running time: 98 minutes


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