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Dustin Putman

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Race to Witch Mountain  (2009)
1 Stars
Directed by Andy Fickman.
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, Tom Everett Scott, Christopher Marquette, Billy Brown, Garry Marshall, Cheech Marin, Kim Richards, Iake Eisenmann, Tom Woodruff Jr., Meredith Salenger, Christine Lakin.
2009 – 98 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for violence and some thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 10, 2009.
A loose remake-cum-reinvisioning of 1975's "Escape to Witch Mountain," "Race to Witch Mountain" is a flavorless sci-fi family picture that fools itself into thinking it is more grandiose than it is. The music score by Trevor Rabin (2008's "Get Smart") swells to instrumental heights that practically scream at the viewer to be awe-inspired. The trouble is, the accompanying images, like a CGI-enhanced studio backlot posing as a supernatural underground lair or the final scene of two earthlings watching as a UFO launches into space above them, look about as clunky as the script credited to Matt Lopez (2008's "Bedtime Stories") and Mark Bomback (2008's "Deception"). These moments, as well as all the repetitive car chases, cornball one-liners, and getting-to-know-you fluff that make up the rest of the 98-minute running time, simply have no joy to them. This is rote, paint-by-numbers moviemaking, only more convoluted than most.

Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) is a down-on-his-luck Las Vegas cab driver who suddenly must fulfill a greater destiny when two teenage siblings, Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), become his latest passengers. They are really peace-seeking aliens, the former with telepathic and telekinetic abilities and the latter able to pass through solid objects and withstand great impacts, on earth to save their own planet's deteriorating atmosphere by locating the mystical Witch Mountain. With the help of Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), a scientist in town for a UFO convention, Jack must help Sara and Seth complete their mission while eluding capture from a mysterious organization that wants them for experimentation purposes.

Directed by Andy Fickman (2007's "The Game Plan"), "Race to Witch Mountain" fumbles its telling of a story that shouldn't be nearly as complicated (or is it just nonsensical?) as it comes off. Single-digit children likely won't be able to follow the ins and outs of Sara's and Seth's motives, and certainly won't have much use for the shaggy material and kinda-sorta romance between Jack and Alex. As for older audiences, all but the most strident fans of one or more of the actors won't be interested enough to care. The movie goes around and around in circles, with uninspired chase scenes through desert settings interspersed with brief segments in Las Vegas that favor what can only be assumed are Los Angeles-based interiors. There is precious little charm on display, and even less excitement and laughs, as director Fickman aims for action-comedy status without throwing much effort into it.

As Jack Bruno, Dwayne Johnson (2006's "Gridiron Gang") is called upon to chauffeur Sara and Seth around while keeping them out of harm's way. As such, he makes the same impression that any standard, garden-variety taxi driver does; for most, he is strictly a means from point-A to point-B, and you won't remember him the next day. As space visitors Sara and Seth, AnnaSophia Robb (2008's "Sleepwalking") and Alexander Ludwig (2007's "The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising") speak in an intentionally stilted manner. Their performances full of knowing affectations, they are unable to warm themselves to the viewer. Better—though underused in the long run—is an energetic Carla Gugino (2009's "Watchmen"), who wishes she had better film roles to get energetic for. Most of the cameos are throwaways, from Garry Marshall (2002's "Orange County") as a professional extraterrestrial enthusiast to Cheech Marin (2007's "Grindhouse") as an auto mechanic. Original "Escape to Witch Mountain" kids Kim Richards (2007's "Black Snake Moan") and Iake Eisenmann, now fully grown, also make respective appearances.

"Race to Witch Mountain" feels slow even when it is pacing quickly, perhaps because director Andy Fickman has not brought anything fresh or creatively invigorating to the proceedings. The movie is bland as bland can be, adding up to a whimper, and the supposed friendship that forms between Jack and alien kids Sara and Seth feels decidedly forced. The only true standout moment comes as an aside, but it is so sly that it's worth mentioning. Meredith Salenger, who played the title character in 1985's "The Journey of Natty Gann," briefly shows up as news reporter Natalie Gann. This in-joke is destined to go over most people's heads, but it's the sort of subtle, undeniably witty gag that one wishes the film had more of. Then again, maybe it calls attention to itself because it doesn't have anything to do with the lackadaisical central plot. "Race to Witch Mountain" has all the thrills of a race between a slug and a hermit crab.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman