Thursday, March 19, 2009

I Hate Racing

Race to Witch Mountain is one of those inevitable modern remakes of classic family films. The Witch Mountain series is a franchise Disney has obviously held onto for decades in the hopes of turning the family-friendly adventure into a souped-up action flick starring a guy who used to called "The Rock" and directed by the freakin' associate producer of Anaconda. To be sure, they still get the PG--as Disney always strains to do in any film that doesn't have "Pirates of the Caribbean" in its title--but that has more to do with how boring and tepid the film is than how kid-appropriate.

Dwayne Johnson headlines the film, which is the second in what must be a three-film Disney contract (the first was The Gameplan, which wasn't anything special, but was way more special than this). I posit this "contract" talk because there seems to be no other reason for this film to exist other than The Rock in the lead and the obvious use of the beloved "Witch Mountain" in the title. Without those two elements, the film would mean precisely nothing. It's hard to imagine Johnson participating in this film out of anything other than contractual force.

Of Johnson's work, let it be said that he has not run out of energy, but that he has run out of material; he is clearly a talented guy, but there is only so far he can carry this film on his sense of humor alone. After all, this is a movie that positions itself as a four-quadrant action extravaganza. But how engaged can one become in an action film whose action scenes are conceived by a director ridiculously out of his depth and whose plot is so murky and convoluted that it's nearly incomprehensible?

Johnson plays a cab driver with a criminal past (how generic is that?!) who stumbles upon two seemingly normal human kids who happen to be from another planet. Cute! The trio go on the run from sinister forces both governmental and otherworldly, all in a pursuit to get back to their ship, which crashed at the titular mountain. Exciting! Of course, such plot details could be figured out without even watching the film's trailer, but there is literally nothing else to the film other than the vague skeleton of a story idea. There is no revelation that deepens viewer engagement, there is no nuance beyond typical screenwriter machinations--this film is an avatar of an exciting sci-fi adventure.

Andy Fickman, who apparently is under contract to direct all of Dwayne Johnson's Disney projects (he also helmed--magnificently!--The Game Plan), directed Race to Witch Mountain, and he does about as good a job as you'd expect a career-long director of lame comedies to do with sci-fi action material. The action in the film is inept in its direction, scatological in its editing, and outright lame in its visual effects--which, for a movie angling to be a cutting edge update of a classic Disney franchise, is distracting at best and unforgivable at worst. Fickman's failure--as he's previously shot no more compelling cinematic action than people walking around an apartment--to understand the ins and outs of action filmmaking is not really his fault, save that he delivered a limp, lazy film...and that, you know, he actually accepted this very out-of-his-league assignment. Disney's failure to hire a strong action director, or even a non-action director whose visual skills are up to the challenge, to helm this film is the company's fault--ditto the fact that this screenplay is completely DOA, offering not an interesting plot and compelling characters, but merely a bare bones high-concept on which cliched jokes and derivative action scenes are hung.

Good family films are always hard to come by, and Johnson is a good actor with some natural comedic ability--he fits right into the family film mold. Disney was right to use him in that vein, and the studio has certainly done its part to broaden the family viewing landscape, delivering quality animated film after quality animated film. But live action is another story--and until the studio is are able to put the kind of care into all of its live action films as it put into Pirates of the Caribbean, the live action division will continue to pale in comparison to the truly groundbreaking work done in the animation division. As for Race to Witch Mountain, it is just more of the lame-brained, hum-drum status quo.

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