The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Race to Witch Mountain: Three Theories on a Thrice-Told Tale

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageIn 1995, I was an awkward twelve-year-old with few friends and bad hair.  (Seriously.  I got a perm that year.  It wasn’t pretty.)  I spent a lot of my time daydreaming of something better, of meeting people who finally understood me, who accepted me the way I was.  That was the year I saw a made-for-TV movie called Escape to Witch Mountain.  It followed the adventures of twins with mysterious powers who discover that they are aliens and must get to Witch Mountain to return to their home planet.  And I was captivated.  Here were these two kids, ostracized by their peers, labeled as “weird”—and it turns out that they’re actually aliens!  In that moment, I wished that I was an alien, too.  (And I half suspected I was until I got into college.)  I later found out that the movie I loved was actually a remake, and when I was about fourteen I saw the original 1975 version.  Again, we get the sense of alienation—no pun intended—the kids feel, as well as the close bond they have with one another.  I didn’t like this as well as the 1995 version—maybe it was the bell bottoms that did me in—but still, there was something about it that resonated with me.

Naturally, I was curious when I heard about Race to Witch Mountain, the story’s latest incarnation.  My love for the 1995 version notwithstanding, I tend to be a little bit skeptical about remakes.  So I went into the film screening with one question in mind: why would Disney remake a movie that they’ve already made…twice?

Whatever the reason was, I can tell you this much: it wasn’t for awkward, weird kids like me.  The latest version follows alien teenagers Sara and Seth as they attempt to find their spaceship and return to their home planet.  Dwayne (formerly known as “the Rock”) Johnson plays Jack, an ex-con cab driver who becomes their reluctant protector.  But since the kids spend most of the movie with Jack, we never get to see their sense of discontent when they’re rejected by their peers, as we did in the previous two movies.  The kids also know they're aliens, and we know they’re aliens—hell, they don’t use contractions, so they’d have to be something weird—so we never get to see the kids’ sense of relief when they realize, “Hey, we’re not freaks.  We’re just aliens.”  Quite frankly, that was one of the charms of the previous two films, one of the things that made them so relatable for insecure adolescents like me.

So what do we get?  Certainly not character development; none of the characters here evolve much beyond cardboard cutouts.  Not much of a plot either; the kids are chased by an evil government agency, but when hasn’t an alien story involved an evil government agency?  It does have a few funny moments; unfortunately, the funniest—when Jack confesses his belief that aliens are little green men who say things like, “Take me to your leader”—has already been spoiled in film’s trailer.  And…uh…it does have a really loud soundtrack, which is great if you’re on a bad date or something.  (But very, very bad if you’re prone to get headaches in loud movie theaters like I am, so bring some Advil.)

…Oh, and it does offer proof that Tom Everett Scott has not disappeared off of the face of the planet.  Of course, he’s playing one of the bad guys—which, given that his role in That Thing You Do! was so damn likable, I found hard to believe.  Still, it was nice to see him again, even if he only got about two lines.

All in all, it’s not an inherently bad movie.  It’s just mediocre.  And pointless.

Which still begs the question: why exactly did Disney dig into its vaults to produce this?  It’s not like the public was begging for a Witch Mountain remake.  If anything, the original (and its remake) are probably two of Disney’s less-remembered films; even I, a self-confessed fan, hadn’t thought about either movie in more than a decade, until I saw the trailers for the new version.  And this isn’t the kind of film that has a built-in audience.

So I’ve got three theories:


Theory #1: Disney, being the benevolent corporation that it is, was attempting to make quality entertainment suitable for the whole family.

I don’t have a problem with family movies.  And certainly, I think the whole aliens-on-Earth thing is a concept with a lot of potential.  More than 20 years after my first viewing of E.T., it still stands out in my mind as a great movie—and that’s the same concept with an uglier alien.  That is great family entertainment right there.

Speaking of quality family entertainment, in 2007 Disney produced Bridge to Terabithia, which also starred AnnaSophia Robb (who plays the female alien here).  Robb’s performance in Terabithia was luminous, so I know she can do better.  But I guess there’s only so much that even a talented performer can do with a lackluster script.

So if this was Disney’s goal, then they need to give kids—and their parents—a little more credit.  I don’t care whether your audience is 5 or 500; you shouldn’t skimp on plot in favor of cool effects!  Seriously, didn’t anyone learn anything from the Star Wars prequels?

This movie might be enjoyable for certain audiences; based on the audience in the screening I saw, I’m guessing males between the ages of 6 and 10.  But even that group wasn’t exactly awestruck by the movie.  Oh, don’t get me wrong: I heard kids who had attending my screening saying things like, “It was good.  Really.”  But none of them seemed exactly disappointed that it was over, either.

Even if you’re not a part of the target audience, the movie isn’t terrible.  It’s a hell of a lot less torturous than some I’ve seen—*cough*Black Dahlia*cough.*  And if you’re looking for a quick and easy way to get out of the house, there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half.

Likelihood this is the case: About 50%.  I know Disney can do better than this…but then again, I know they can do much, much worse

If this was their goal, then the movie gets a: C-.  Actually, the movie was solid C material, but I bumped off half a letter for tainting my memories of the previous two films.

Theory #2: Disney decided to make a movie purely to facilitate the creation of a ride in one or more of its theme parks.

Imagine, if you will, two Disney imagineers; just for simplicity’s sake, we’ll call them Mickey and Donald.  They are tasked with coming up with the latest and greatest ride for Disney World.  Their conversation goes something like this.

MICKEY: You know what would be great?  An alien ride in the Magic Kingdom.

DONALD: Yeah, but you know all those Magic Kingdom rides have to be movie-themed.  What alien movies has Disney done lately?

MICKEY: Was E.T. made by Disney?


MICKEY: Shit.  (Thinks for a moment.)  Hey, what about Escape to Witch Mountain?  That was about two alien kids, right?  We could make a kick-ass ride off of that.

DONALD: Yeah, but Escape to Witch Mountain was made in the 70s.  I don’t think anyone even remembers it anymore.

MICKEY: Okay, so…we’ll contact Goofy in the movie department and have him whip up a remake.  It’ll be awesome!  We can have spaceships and alien robots and taxi cabs playing chicken with trains!

DONALD: But what about a script?

MICKEY: Pshaw!  Who needs a script when you have special effects?

DONALD: I guess you’re right.  And if the studio wants a little more substance, we can always toss in some message about…I dunno, environmentalism or some shit like that.  That’ll make those whiney-ass Al Gore-types happy, anyway.

Likelihood that this is the case: About 97.2%.   This is Disney we’re talking about, after all, and the pithy environmental message (the aliens have destroyed their own atmosphere, which is why their military wants to take over Earth) does seem like a rather tacked-on moral.

If this was their goal, then the movie gets: A D+, for blatant synergetic cynicism.  (But, being the Disney whore that I am, I’ll bump it to a B if the ride turns out to be halfway decent.)

ImageTheory #3: Race to Witch Mountain has nothing to do with family entertainment or amusement park rides or the 1970s original.  Instead, it is an elaborate ruse concocted by Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse to discreetly reveal all the secrets of Lost.

On the surface, this may seem like the most outrageous theory.  But hear me out.  It came to me when Cheech Marin—who plays Hurley’s father in Lost—appeared in a small role in the film as a mechanic.  In Lost, Hurley and his father bonded while working on a car.  Strangely, Marin’s name does not appear on the IMDb page for the movie.  Coincidence?  I think not.

But this is not the only eerie similarity.  The main character of the movie is a man named Jack, just as a man named Jack is the main character on Lost.  On Lost, Jack was once married to a woman named Sarah; in Race to Witch Mountain, the female alien is named Sara.  The (human) bad guy in the movie is named Henry Burke.  In Lost, evil Ben Linus at first assumed an alias: Henry Gale.  And the mysterious, possible double-agent Juliet’s last name: Burke.  Race to Witch Mountain includes a scientist named Alex Friedman, a dark-haired female.  Is this character possibly a reference to the dark-haired Alex Rousseau…or her scientific researcher-turned-crazy person mother, Danielle?

Somehow, that nutty team of Lindelof and Cuse managed to commandeer an entire movie studio and make a film revealing all the secrets to Lost, all the while disguising it as a lame family movie.  It’s like that Oceanic Airlines website, only on the big screen.  And releasing it during a week when no new Lost episode has run, guaranteeing that we’re all going to be dying for something—anything—new?  Brilliant.

Likelihood that this is the case: It’s all the more likely because it seems so unlikely.  And remember: Disney owns ABC.

If this was their goal, then the movie gets: An A+.  Damon, Carlton, you guys are geniuses.


So believe what you will.  But I, personally, will be going back to the theater, pen and paper in hand, trying to unravel the mysteries of Lost via the wrestler formerly known as the Rock.