by HELEN GEIB
Las Vegas cab driver Jack Bruno is in for the ride of his life when he discovers the teenaged brother and sister in the passenger seat are aliens on a mission in Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain. Directed by Andy Fickman from a script loosely based on Alexander Key’s young adult novel “Escape to Witch Mountain,” the film stars Dwayne Johnson as Jack, AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig as the young extraterrestrials Sara and Seth, and Carla Gugino as astrophysicist ally Dr. Alex Friedman.
“Race” is right: the plot keeps our heroes almost constantly on the move. Not only is Sara’s and Seth’s mission of the most pressing urgency, but the siblings are being vigorously pursued by a shadowy government agency within the U.S. defense establishment and an artificially-created humanoid assassin dispatched by the military of their home planet. The film is one step away from an uninterrupted succession of chases, fights, and near escapes.
The action is competently executed, but holds no surprises. However, although the film occasionally threatens to devolve into a theme park attraction, it is preserved from deadening monotony by its liberal use of humor, the likability of the main characters, and an appealing dramatic underpinning in the theme of preserving and building family bonds.
Johnson’s above-the-title billing is not solely an affirmation of his box office clout. Bemused everyman Jack– not the ultra-cool, special powers wielding Sara and Seth- is the film’s main character. The unexpected focus puts the main audience identification figure at the center of the action. The choice works to the film’s advantage, not least because of Johnson’s performance. The role caters to his easy command of the screen and facility with light comedy, his principal strengths as an actor.
It also works because the key dramatic storyline is not the alien visitors’ mission; that’s no more than a serviceable plot device. Jack is a man who has been on his own and down on his luck for too many years. The drama is in his self-renewal as he becomes part of a family again.
Jack and the kids pick up Alex at a paranormal convention in Vegas where she is the lonely voice of scientific inquiry amidst the wackos. What with the “I want to believe” types and the government cover-up conspiracy plot, Race to Witch Mountain wears the aspect of a Disneyfied episode of the “X-Files.” That show is old enough that it probably doesn’t register even as a cultural reference to a 14 year old; the over-familiarity of the proceedings to the adult audience is unlikely to cut into the enjoyment of the target demographic.
If you go, don’t be too quick to leave at the end. Scenes from next year’s paranormal convention play over the end credits, putting a coda on the story and ending the film on a high note.
2 1/2 stars