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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Funny thing: I recall Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain. Those movies were kind of a big deal when I was a kid, and I know I saw them. However, I don't recall anything specific about them other than the titles. In other words, while I remember the films, they were not particularly memorable. This is a fate that I strongly suspect will befall Race to Witch Mountain, the latest "classic" to be "re-imagined" by Hollywood. This new version may appeal to the target audience of young kids, but for adults, it's a bit of a slog to get through.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays Vegas taxi driver Jack Bruno, an ex-con trying to go straight despite the efforts of a local crime boss to pull him back in. One afternoon, two strange kids - Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) - jump into his cab. Claiming to be aliens from space, they insist that he outrun the black SUVs that are chasing them. Jack initially disbelieves their assertions of otherworldliness, but a few quick displays of telekinesis convince him otherwise.

A shadowy federal agent named Burke (Ciaran Hinds) is in hot pursuit of the kids, having learned that they landed on Earth. Like all shadowy government types in movies about friendly aliens visiting our planet, he fully intends to perform many kinds of invasive procedures on them. Sara and Seth need to locate their spaceship so that they can finish their assignment; if Burke catches them, it will spell catastrophe for Earth. Jack agrees to help them outrun Burke and find their vehicle. He gets an assist from Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), a UFO expert he coincidentally just met. Their ultimate destination, in case you didn't figure it out from the title, is Witch Mountain, a military depository that doesn't officially exist but at which the vessel is being contained.

Race to Witch Mountain has a lot going on, considering that not a whole lot happens in it. What I mean is that there's relatively little plot, and what is here is mostly just a hook on which to hang one action scene after another. For your buck, you get numerous chase scenes, a bunch of explosions, multiple shots of people being thrown through glass, and some fistfights. In terms of action, the film is pretty non-stop.

What's missing is a soul. The screenplay attempts to squeeze in an environmental message, yet it's little more than an afterthought. There's a sequence in which Sara and Seth launch into a lengthy explanation for their visit to Earth, but the idea is never really developed to any satisfying degree. You can tell that the filmmakers thought some kind of justification for their presence was needed, and what they came up with has been done, oh, at least 4,000 times before.

Lack of originality would not necessarily have to be a deal-breaker. On the whole, Race to Witch Mountain is inoffensive family entertainment, headed up by the always charismatic Dwayne Johnson. Here is a guy you can't help but like. I've seen him in a dozen movies - some better than others - and always found him to have an abundance of charm. This is an interesting role for Johnson, because it utilizes his action star skills while still allowing for some self-deprecating humor. The story also plays into a fundamental childhood fantasy, one that occasionally even carries over into adulthood: having telepathic powers. Even the worst movie can find a little bit of fun in that idea.

What a bummer, then, that the picture can't shake off some of its annoying tendencies to have a little more fun than it does. Many of its attempts to convey the fantastic are just kind of bizarre, bordering on grating. For instance, the kids have this strange habit of talking like the Coneheads, saying simple things in complicated language to suggest that they don't speak our language, even though they are audibly quite fluent in it. For example, when they jump into Jack's "transportation vehicle," they realize that he will require a "large financial transaction" to drive them anywhere. "The movements of the vehicles behind us are indicating a pattern of pursuit," Sara says at the commencement of a chase scene. Even more grating is the kids' insistence on calling him "Jack Bruno" at every turn. Not once do they ever just call him Jack; it's always the full name. And so you get a million lines such as, "Watch out, Jack Bruno!" And did I mention that the "special" effects here are seriously cheesy?

I'm probably making Race to Witch Mountain sound worse than it is. On the whole, the movie is watchable; it's just not anything more than that. I don't expect a lightweight family adventure like this to be Oscar-worthy or anything, but I do expect to kick back and have a good time. Sure, parts of the film are amusing, but more often than not, I found myself mildly distracted by the irritating quirks, the underdeveloped story, or the unconvincing effects. Those things kept the movie grounded when I really wanted it to take off.

( 1/2 out of four)

Race to Witch Mountain is rated PG for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.

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