Disney has a real knack for taking a good idea and sucking the fun out of it. Take Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Molding him into the next big action star seemed like a good idea. The Rundown was a blast and Walking Tall was a guilty pleasure. The Rock has talent, charisma, and gigantic muscles. By now he should be well on his way to being the next Stallone, and he was until Disney got a hold of him. Now he hangs out with cute kids and smiles lovingly at the camera. Instead of the next Schwarzenegger he’s the next Steve Guttenberg and we have Disney to thank for it. It’s only a matter of time before he’s doing a buddy comedy with Miley Cyrus.
Or take aliens. Aliens are fun right? Race to Witch Mountain is about aliens landing on Earth and taking the form of teenagers with super powers. The Rock is Jack Bruno, a hapless cab driver, hired by the kids to take them to their ship, and in way over his head. The government’s after them, alien assassins are after them, and all they have is a beat up yellow cab with four bald tires. It’s an idea filled with opportunity for imagination. But it’s a Disney movie, so they’ve gone out of their way to realize it with as little creativity and innovation as possible. Creativity isn’t safe and for this movie, it’s more important to be safe than good. When a group of cops walk into a bar they must order a round of Frito pies. Not because it makes any sense, but because some parent in the audience might be offended if the movie shows anyone drinking beer. Guns on the other hand, apparently those parents have no problem with. If Race to Witch Mountain were an airline, it wouldn’t serve peanuts.
Disney makes fantastic animated movies, but the days when their live-action films unlocked the minds of kids, delivering them into magical worlds filled with pirates, aliens, and ancient canine curses are long behind them. Race to Witch Mountain is stifling, constricting. Watching it is like being locked in the trunk of a car with The Rock, and he has a bad case of the farts.
Maybe that’s the worst thing, knowing that Johnson is so much better than his recent bumper crop of terrible, family-friendly movies. Look into his eyes on screen and he seems to know he’s been locked inside a box. He’s as trapped by this movie as we are. It’s like watching Guttenberg in the last days of his career, when he had to know starring in a movie with the Olsen Twins was probably a bad move, but just couldn’t do anything to stop it. Maybe I’m reading too much into it but The Rock, despite a winning smile and a glimmer in his eye, must sense something has gone off the rails.
Of course this is a remake so maybe we could place some of the blame for this stale redo on the original film which, even though it was made in Disney’s live-action heyday was hardly one of their best. I say that’s no excuse. If you’re going to bother remaking something, you might as well try to do it better. In this case it shouldn’t even be hard, it’s a decent concept. It’s not as if Disney put a gun to director Andy Fickman’s head and screamed in a bizarre, Hitler-like German accent: “This movie is about alien kids! Now make it as flat and lifeless as possible!” Scratch that. Maybe they did. So they’ve taken an already flat movie and attacked it with an iron. They’ve removed all of the wrinkles and what’s left is a stiff, cynical, corporate product. Not wholly awful but not particularly good either. It’s inspired by nothing and it inspires nothing. It merely hangs there on screen going through the motions. Good performances are given by talented actors, but they’re wasted on listless set design and a script generated by corporate greed and shopping mall focus groups.
Your kids will in the moment, enjoy it. Your kids will enjoy anything. That doesn’t mean you should waste their time letting them see it. Enjoy it they might, but it won’t leave an impression. They’ll eat popcorn but walk out as empty as they came in, ready for Disney to fill the still present void inside them with their next, cardboard kiddie entertainment product. Disney may be able to sell kids on buying a ticket for Race to Witch Mountain, but they aren’t going to sell many Race to Witch Mountain lunchboxes.