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MOVIE REVIEW

Race to Witch Mountain

Not-so-amazing 'Race': 'Witch Mountain' redo is armed and tedious

From left: AnnaSophia Robb, Dwayne Johnson, and Alexander Ludwig star in Disney's ''Race to Witch Mountain.'' From left: AnnaSophia Robb, Dwayne Johnson, and Alexander Ludwig star in Disney's ''Race to Witch Mountain.''
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / March 13, 2009
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What once was a strange, flavorless children's movie (1975's "Escape to Witch Mountain") is now the most heavily armed Disney family film ever made. And this is before Dwayne Johnson's biceps get in on the action. Yes, Johnson, the nimble comedian and promising actor, is back to arching his eyebrows and muscling extras through plate glass as though he'd just left the wrestling ring. As with "The Game Plan," his hit from 2007, it's for the kids.

In "Race to Witch Mountain," he plays Jack Bruno, a Las Vegas taxi driver who helps two exceptionally blond, exceptionally robotic children (AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig) look for their spaceship. The kids are aliens with superpowers who've embarked on an interstellar mission, the nature of which receives paragraph-length exposition. No one talks in this film, but everyone explains, almost always while on the run.

Why a race to Witch Mountain, as opposed to an escape? I imagine the change has to do with the sequence of Jack's cab barreling the wrong way down a railroad; or the one in which he and the space kids flee a giant metallic assassin, a burning shack, bolts of laser light, and exploding slime pods; or another that requires him and a sexy "astrophysical anomaly detection" expert (Carla Gugino) to plummet down a water slide - I mean, exhaust pipe. This is not a movie. It's a coming attraction for a theme park.

No one seems to have cared enough to give a human personality to the movie, which is based on the same adventure book that the 1975 film was. Directed by Andy Fickman, who also made "The Game Plan," this new movie is certainly the spiffier product. The original's special effects (an upside-down helicopter, say) looked like they were sent straight to the screen from a box of Cracker Jack. But Eddie Albert, in Johnson's part, had a loneliness in his face that makes the movie's monotonous extra-terrestrial after-school-specialness bearable. And the two kids had natural charm, too.

This new, jacked-up version wouldn't pass a drug test for performance enhancers. In "Race to Witch Mountain" all the scenes set in a busy control room are like all such scenes. This time it's Ciaran Hinds, as a Defense Department baddie (very previous administration), who does the over-the-shoulder, over-the-top peering at the monitors of minions in order to see what Jack and the kids are up to. He's chasing them down to exploit them. If the last 20 minutes of "E.T" were stretched to an hour and a half, then drained of any emotional gusto, you'd have this movie, which, truth be told, plays more as if the producers and director were looking to catch Jerry Bruckheimer's eye: car crashes, shoot-outs, fisticuffs, a guitar-synth score that suggests a video-game version is also in the offing.

The violence plays like certain video games, a cause for alarm for an audience that still watches "Yo Gabba Gabba!" Will kids freak out when scores of soldiers open fire on the blonds? Could they already be desensitized to that sort of thing? The MPAA rating is PG for sequences of "action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements." For what it's worth, that's not far from the second "Terminator" movie, which won an R in 1991. As for the vague "thematic elements," that might have something to do with the possibility that Disney is trying to top James Cameron's body count.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN Directed by: Andy Fickman

Written by: Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback, adapted from the book "Escape to Witch Mountain" by Alexander Key

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig, Carla Gugino, Ciaran Hinds, and Garry Marshall

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 99 minutes

Rated: PG (sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements)

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