By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — If you grew up in the 1970s, you probably have some fond moviegoing memory of “Escape to Witch Mountain.”
Sure, the special effects look dated — the flying Winnebago with Eddie Albert at the wheel, for example. But the 1975 action-adventure tale of an orphaned brother and sister with psychic powers still holds up for all ages. What kid wouldn’t want to communicate with animals telepathically, or magically make stuff hit a bully in the face?
With “Race to Witch Mountain” — a re-imagining, not a remake, to use the vernacular — the kids are about six years older, which depletes the story of some of its sweetness. It’s also harder to care about them because they’re not really the ones driving the story — they’re literally passengers in what is essentially yet another family friendly vehicle for Dwayne Johnson.
The artist formerly known as The Rock stars as Jack Bruno, an ex-con trying to carve out a clean life as a Las Vegas cab driver. (All his passengers happen to end up going to Planet Hollywood in a convenient little bit of product placement.) The role once again requires him to play a tough guy with a soft heart.
One day, alien brother and sister Seth and Sara (Alexander Ludwig and AnnaSophia Robb) mysteriously appear in the back seat of his car, produce a wad of cash and ask him to take them to an indeterminate location.
Their arrival there is crucial to the survival of their planet, they eventually explain in politely robotic English. (“Jack Bruno, it would appear we have not eluded them,” is a typical bit of dialogue.) But first, they must endure a series of repetitive and bombastic car chases, as they try to hide from both government baddies with nefarious plans (led by Ciaran Hinds) and an alien assassin on a mission to destroy them.
The film from Andy Fickman (who also directed Johnson in the football comedy “The Game Plan”), based on a script by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback, is all noise and action, overedited shootouts with blaring music. And it has none of the small charms of the original, though the ethereally pretty Robb, star of “Bridge to Terabithia,” has a likable presence, and she gets to do some of that same turn-the-animals-against-their-owners routine.
What “Race to Witch Mountain” does retain from the 1975 movie are its stars, Iake Eissinmann and Kim Richards (she’s still cute!), who make knowing cameos at a small-town diner. And yes, there is a Winnebago, driven by wisecracking Garry Marshall as a UFO conspiracy expert.
Carla Gugino doesn’t get much to do as Marshall’s rival, a scientist who believes in the possibility of extraterrestrial life. If there really are aliens out there with superpowers, though, couldn’t they have come up with a better script?
“Race to Witch Mountain,” a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated PG for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements. Running time: 99 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.