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Race to Witch Mountain DVD & Blu-ray Review

Race to Witch Mountain movie poster Race to Witch Mountain

Theatrical Release: March 13, 2009 / Running Time: 98 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Andy Fickman / Writers: Matt Lopez (screen story & screenplay), Mark Bomback (screenplay), Alexander Key (book)

Cast: Dwayne Johnson (Jack Bruno), AnnaSophia Robb (Sara), Carla Gugino (Dr. Alex Friedman), Ciarán Hinds (Burke), Alexander Ludwig (Seth), Tom Everett Scott (Matheson), Christopher Marquette (Pope), Billy Brown (Carson), Kim Richards (Tina), Iake Eissinmann (Sheriff Antony), Garry Marshall (Dr. Donald Harlan), Tom Woodruff, Jr. (Siphon), Cheech Marin (Eddie Cortez - uncredited)

Buy Race to Witch Mountain from Amazon.com: 1-Disc DVD2-Disc Deluxe Edition DVDBlu-ray/DVD Combo

and Kelvin Cedeno

The original Witch Mountain movies seem ideal for remake treatment. They're good enough to be remembered, but simple enough to benefit from being updated. As an added bonus, there is the fact that many fans of the fantasy adventures now have children around the same age they were when taking to them.

Since the favorable reception given 1975's Escape to Witch Mountain and 1978's Return from Witch Mountain, Disney twice delved back into the world imagined in print by Alexander Key.
The first time was a television pilot that, not chosen to become a series, merely aired in 1982 as part of the company's 1-hour Saturday night program. The second was a bona fide made-for-TV Escape movie remake in 1995. For the third revisit to the universe of supernatural youths, Disney cranked up the ambition and went for broke.

With a high-profile cast, an estimated budget of $50 million, and an over 3,000-theater release, Race to Witch Mountain went about as big as a live-action family film can without having a summer or holiday season opening. You would think, then, that the studio betting on this project would know better than to entrust it to the star and director of The Game Plan, which I can confidently declare the worst Disney movie to have graced theaters this decade. But, they didn't, and so Race bowed in March as something of a vehicle for wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne Johnson, better known as "The Rock", the ring name he's officially stopped using.

Much of "Race to Witch Mountain" has Las Vegas cabbie Jack Bruno (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) driving slightly odd teens Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) around his planet. You'll need to set aside what Will Smith told you, because this film's Man in Black (Ciaran Hinds) is a not-so-nice galaxy defender who actually does let you remember.

The difference between how 1970s Disney treated the subject of aliens and how 2000s Disney does becomes clear immediately. Race opens with a montage of headlines and presidential sound bites that exude the "truth is out there" sentiment that seemed to peak fifteen years ago with the height of "The X-Files." Escape conveyed the fun of extrasensory gifts. Race instead dwells on the danger that follows them.

Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig), a couple of blonde siblings in their early teens, somehow turn up in the taxi of Jack Bruno (Johnson), a Las Vegas cabbie with both aspirations and a criminal record. Jack is skeptical toward extraterrestrial life, especially on the weekend when most of his fares are loony believers in town for the UFO convention. But after Sara and Seth demonstrate some of their unworldly abilities, the driver's mind opens, at least enough to realize there are greater forces in pursuit than some underworld hoods.

Of initial concern is a Siphon, an armored terminator who seems to have wandered off a "Power Rangers" set. Then there is the U.S. Department of Defense, led by the shady-acting Major Henry Burke (Ciarán Hinds), which is already investigating some breakthrough local phenomena. Joining Jack and the kids in this race is astrophysicist Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino), who's convinced that hard science can be used to prove alien life exists.

Following a close call with a Siphon, the taxi makes a quick getaway amidst pink light and spouting geysers. No, astrophysicist Dr. Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino) hasn't chosen the outer space backdrop for her early '90s school photo. She's just being shown the truth about aliens, a task more visually potent with some stars and planets engulfing her.

Both of the '70s Witch Mountain movies delivered bits of action and science fiction, but this reimagining goes much further, leaving little time for the comedy and silliness once mandatory in live-action Disney. At first glance, the slightly younger leads of yore seemed to be cut from the same cloth as Mary Poppins, their enchantment neither specified nor questioned. Here, it feels like everything gets explained but in ways that don't engage or matter. Following Escape's design, Race takes its time before spelling out the facts. Unfortunately, by that time, enough hooey has transpired for viewers to have stopped wondering.

There is very little to distinguish the routine chase, as suits in black SUVs and aircrafts trail our unquestionably harmless and noble good group. That Race departs from its source's fairly light storyline doesn't bother. That it ends up inferior and lacking at every turn does. Case in point, whereas Tony and Tia had their telepathic communication and foresight, Sara and Seth are given far less interesting powers of withstanding impact and obnoxiously reading minds. Tony and Tia looked and acted like normal kids. The steps taken to establish that Sara and Seth are different rob them of the humanity that any sympathetic movie character needs.

Appealing to any audience seems to have been overlooked, while Race instead pays mind to effects looking nice and special. Rather than playing out as an exciting family film, the production opts for frantic pacing, an edgy tone, unwarranted fisticuffs, and ineffective suspense. That design renders it a genre B-movie, one that's more acceptable for children than most (although still mildly disconcerting in content). That it can boast a higher budget and recognizable talent does little to boost its worth. Those elements lose meaning when there isn't the storytelling to support them. For the most part, such storytelling isn't found here and though competently executed, Race is emotionally hollow.

You'd be remiss if you didn't suspect an underplayed romance between Jack (Dwayne Johnson) and Alex (Carla Gugino). Also, if you didn't think they'd get a chance to turn around proudly in front of this film's Witch Mountain. The original Tia (Kim Richards) and Tony (Iake Eissinmann) nicely show up in Ray's diner as waitress Tina and sheriff Antony.

While director Andy Fickman has crafted something far more coherent here than his previous effort for Disney, many of this film's shortcomings can likely be traced back to him.
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The performances he pulls from his cast are far from remarkable. Dwayne Johnson isn't as uncomfortable as in The Game Plan, but his attempts at sarcastic, charismatic hero mostly fall flat. Bridge to Terabithia's AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig of The Seeker: The Dark is Rising seemed like smart casting, but neither does anything special with the automaton roles (unless you count her annoying overuse of her driver's full name) and the movie doesn't suffer when the kids basically disappear late in the game. As forgettable as she was in Night at the Museum, Carla Gugino confirms that despite her resumé she's not well suited to this kind of movie. Trying something different than he's used to, Ciarán Hinds is unable to find any depth in his thankless villain's role. We can't blame the cast and director without acknowledging that the screenplay by Disney's suddenly go-to live-action guy Matt Lopez and Live Free or Die Hard's Mark Bomback is anemic in the characterization department.

Probably the most exciting things about this film for fans of the '70s Witch Mountain flicks (besides the new DVDs issued last March in conjunction) are the brief appearances made by Kim Richards and Iake Eissinmann, the actors who played Tia and Tony as children. They turn up as a small-town waitress and sheriff carrying names close to their most famous film parts. Also making cameos are Meredith Salenger, whose briefly-seen news reporter is named after her eponymous The Journey of Natty Gann heroine, and Disney chairman Dick Cook as a blink-and-miss train conductor. Meanwhile, TV comedy legend and oft Disney director Garry Marshall gets a bit more to do and his amusing scientist character provides a Winnebago that harks back to the original film's semi-iconic RV.

Largely uncontested, Race to Witch Mountain opened #1 at the box office, starting a streak that Disney's two subsequent live-action releases have extended. Despite the strong first weekend earnings of $24 million, Race didn't hold up very well. Its $67 M North American gross made its success midrange at best, something the studio has avoided in recent years in favor of global tentpoles. Today, even Disney's midrange successes are treated to a three-tiered home video release. Starting August 4th, those looking to own Race can choose from a no-frills standard disc ($29.99 SRP), a Deluxe Edition DVD with digital copy ($39.99 SRP), and a Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo ($44.99 SRP).

Buy Race to Witch Mountain Blu-ray/DVD Combo from Amazon.com DVD Details

BD: 2.40:1 Widescreen; DTS-HD 5.1, Dolby 5.1 (French, Spanish)
DVD: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen; Dolby Digital 5.1 (ENG, FRE, SPA)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: August 4, 2009
Three single-sided discs (1 BD-50, 1 DVD-9 & 1 DVD-5 DVD-ROM)
Suggested Retail Price: $44.99
Blue Keepcase in Embossed, Holographic Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in Single-Disc DVD
and Deluxe Edition DVD with Digital Copy


Race to Witch Mountain is released exclusively in its 2.40:1 widescreen theatrical aspect ratio. There's nothing about the DVD's picture quality that's a problem, but the film is remarkably dark. Stylized color is used sparingly and much of any given frame is indiscernible. I can't say I'm a big fan of muted palettes, especially when, as here, they're employed for no logical reason. If possible, use less light than you normally do while viewing.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is loaded with sound effects, plenty of which are indiscreet and will have you reaching for the remote to adjust volume levels accordingly. The film does provide an active audio experience and sometimes pleasingly, but reflecting the movie, a lot of it is just vapid noise.

The Blu-ray also presents the movie in 2.40:1. It may be growing frightfully dull to keep saying this, but once again Disney has delivered an excellent image. Other than one lone and minor moiré effect on a roof, the picture is free of any sort of digital noise or flaws. It's unsurprising to see a 2009 feature transferred to high-definition with a completely clean, sharp, and vibrant image, but that doesn't take away from the awe factor.

The DTS-HD 5.1 surround soundtrack is equally impressive, if not more so. With its many action sequences, Race to Witch Mountain has the potential to deliver an enveloping surround experience, and it doesn't disappoint. The most obvious demo scenes involve explosions, crashes, and gunfire, all of which may even be a bit too over the top. These aren't the only scenes mixed well, however, for even ambience in a locale like the sci-fi convention offers nice directionality. Despite the aggressive effects and score, dialogue still manages to come through cleanly without having to fight to make itself heard.

In his deleted scene introductions, director Andy Fickman explains why sequences were cut. He probably should also explain why some of the ones that made the film weren't. Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) has got the power, specifically the one needed to harmlessly traverse a laser security fence in this deleted scene. The Rock cracks wise while driving on Blue Screen Highway in the Bloopers reel.


Race to Witch Mountain is the latest Disney DVD to undermine the word "Deluxe." It contains just four bonus features, only two of which really count.

First and most substantial is a collection of eight extended/deleted scenes individually and collectively introduced by director Andy Fickman. The section runs 23 minutes and 17 seconds altogether and does contain some interesting material. Most striking is a fully-cut scene in which Kim Richards' waitress encounters the Siphon.
There are also two brief set-ups for Rock beatdowns, the latter of which poses Carla Gugino as a Southern damsel in distress. The kids use their powers to comedic and dramatic effect (moving dinner condiments in one, and disarming a security fence in the other). Finally, there is an extended version of the teary goodbyes and Ciarán Hinds' best menace comes in a dark, lengthy, sequel-suggesting tag to the end credits scroll bits. Much of this footage is better than what's in the final cut and it's all worth seeing.

A reel of Bloopers (3:38) focuses mainly on the antics of Dwayne Johnson, showing him get silly in improvisations, alternate takes, and when "cut" is called. Even when the dark filmic footage is juxtaposed with dramatic bits from the film, the entertainment value is quite slight.

Rounding out the DVD are two promotional shorts, one the recurring mini-infomercial of the Brothers Sprouse and their TV mom hyping Disney Blu-ray (5:55), and the other explaining and extolling Disney File digital copy (1:02).

FastPlay-enhanced, the DVD loads with trailers for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Princess and the Frog, and Hannah Montana: The Movie, followed by promos for Blu-ray and Disney Movie Rewards. Post-feature/second page sneak peeks advertise Up, Earth, Santa Buddies, Ponyo, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, and Disney XD.

The only supplement unique to the Blu-ray Disc (and also the only feature offered in high definition) is "Which Mountain?" (8:20). Director Andy Fickman is the sole participant, but his enthusiasm manages to carry this piece as he points out the hidden references to and cameos from the Witch Mountain films and other parts of the Disney universe. It can't replace a true making-of featurette, but it's certainly fun to watch.

As usual, the second disc of the Deluxe DVD and third disc of the Blu-ray combo is nothing more than the digital copy of the film in iTunes and Windows Media formats.

The DVD's main menu deals us an action montage surrounded by high-tech spacey imagery. Submenus take the same approach with less animation but the same amount of dramatic score excerpts. The Blu-ray menu takes on an identical interface. Its pop-up menus are clear to read, branching out in a horizontal fashion. A different sound effect is heard when each one is highlighted and selected.

Inserts in the Blu-ray combo include a booklet with your unique code for both the digital copy and Disney Movie Rewards points and another on the BD-Live Revolution. Artwork from the cover's reverse dully shows through the blue case and color is withheld only from the DVD's disc art.

Jack (Dwayne Johnson) leads another turnaround, this time yielding a heroic 4-star line-up on the platform of a spaceship. Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) look on with fright at their new friend's battle with the Siphon.


Movie studios like remakes, reimaginings, reboots, etc. because brand recognition always boosts business returns. The downside is that viewers in the know are always able to recognize when the project falls short.
Race to Witch Mountain does and not because it takes things in a different direction or because the original film couldn't be surpassed. No, Race disappoints with bland action, shallow characters, and just a generally uninspired story. It's not all bad, but potential is squandered and rarely is the flashy spectacle better than mediocre.

If you haven't already seen the movie, I'd recommend renting before buying. If you're sure you wish to own it, none of Disney's three releases is apt to fully satisfy. The economical no-extras single-disc might be your best bet, but going that route, you miss out on an unusually substantive lot of deleted scenes. The combo seems sensible for those buying Blu-ray or planning to soon but being asked to pay nearly $30 for a subpar movie like this (in triplicate) feels insane when so many classics are more reasonably priced.

Buy Race to Witch Mountain from Amazon.com: 1-Disc DVD / Deluxe DVD / Blu-ray/DVD Combo

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Related Reviews:
The Original Witch Mountain Movies: Escape to Witch MountainReturn from Witch Mountain (Walt Disney Family Classics Editions)
New to DVD: The Tigger Movie (10th Anniversary Edition) • Dragonball: EvolutionKnowingPushCoralineThe Spectacular Spider-Man: S1
Starring Dwayne Johnson: The Game PlanGet Smart | TV Guest Spots: Hannah Montana: Keeping it RealCory in the House: All-Star Edition
AnnaSophia Robb: Bridge to TerabithiaJumper | Carla Gugino: Night at the Museum | Ciarán Hinds: There Will Be Blood
Tom Everett Scott: That Thing You Do!Snow Buddies | From Writer Matt Lopez: Bedtime StoriesThe Wild
National TreasureThe Journey of Natty GannInkheartFreaky Friday (2003)Herbie: Fully LoadedThe Shaggy Dog (2006)
Flight of the NavigatorThe Last MimzyLilo & Stitch (2-Disc Big Wave Edition) • A Wrinkle in TimeNextThe Pacifier

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Reviewed July 29, 2009.