Friday, February 17, 2017


Welcome to another installment of FAMILY MOVIE NIGHT, where we give our recommendation on a family-friendly movie to enjoy. This week we blow the dust off a classic Disney offering, 1975's ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN.

Howdy fellow film freaks, Robert here. If the name "Witch Mountain" means anything to you at all, you likely remember it from the completely unnecessary Race to Witch Mountain, a nostalgia reboot of the series released in 2009. Movie geek that I am, I knew of the earlier Witch Mountain projects, 1975's Escape to Witch Mountain and it's 1978 sequel, Return from Witch Mountain, but had never actually watched either of them. This review represents the end of that omission, and I can't say I'm all the richer for it.

Escape to Witch Mountain is the story of Tony and Tia Mallone, sibling children who, for reasons not immediately apparent, are capable of the usual stable of Disney-magical feats like telekinesis and telepathy. For a while, their biggest problem is fitting in at the orphanage they've been moved into following the death of their foster parents. The two have learned from past experience that the kinds of things they can do don't play well among the norms, and so they keep their powers to themselves. Then an act of using their powers for good bring the children to the attention of a man named Aristotle Bolt, a typical example of the greedy, rich villain common in family movies of the time. Recognizing the money-making potential of the childrens' abilities, Bolt acquires the pair by having one of his employees pose as their uncle and adopt them with a set of forged documents. The two escape, and after finding a mysterious map hidden in an otherwise apparently useless case Tia carries with her, set off to find the location which the map indicates. By utter coincidence, this location turns out to be the titular Witch Mountain -- the map itself doesn't name the place, and the children don't even know why they should bother going there for a long while. Gut feeling, and the somewhat sound logic that anywhere is better than a life as Bolt's little cash cows, is what drives the pair on for most of the movie.

Their journey takes up most of the movie, as one would expect. During that time, Bolt and his men pursue the two, and a liberal application of both Bolt's resources and his money make it impossible for the children to find many places to hide in the interim. Along the way the mystery of the childrens' nature will be revealed, and we get treated to many examples of the little scamps doing their tricks. Each of these moments come with either a comically-overdone "I Am Concentrating" squint-face from Tia, or a (dubbed) harmonica solo from Tony. Because Tony can only do magical stuff while he blows on his harmonica.

You lose if you think about it.

The magical bits are pulled off in the classic, old-school practical effects style, involving lots of not-quite-invisible wires to make things float about as needed. But nobody did this like Disney in the 1970s, and the scene in this movie where a small-town sheriff is attacked by an empty coat wielding a broom is an example of their practical effects prowess.

When they aren't being magical, the kids emote like crazy, apparently trying to be as "expressive" as they possibly can. When they're happy, they're very happy. When they're sad, they're obviously sad. And when they're being serious, they always end up staring at some unseen object just below and to one side of the frame.

But at least they're in good company. No character in this movie is what I would call "complex", and none of them deviate from the first impression you'll get of them. You'll have Bolt pegged as the villain within seconds of meeting him. Even the siblings' one ally, Jason O'Day (Green Acres' Eddie Albert), this film's take on the "Crusty Loner who's secretly a Nice Guy", is fooling no one at the start. I ended up sticking with this movie, not because I was enjoying the story, but because I just wanted to see how the mystery of who Tony and Tia were played out. The kids are cute (natch), but otherwise everybody in this movie is too much of a predictable archetype to be likeable or unlikeable.

If you're looking for an inoffensive Disney classic to watch with your kids, but don't want to sit through another damned musical, they don't come less offensive (or less surprising) than Escape to Witch Mountain. It's old, and will probably spark some questions from younger viewers, but beyond it's age, there's little to differentiate this from the family fare of today. Make of that what you will.

Escape to Witch Mountain is rated G.

Robert's Score: 5 / 10

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