Race to Witch Mountain is one kids' movie that doesn't go all gooey with "a sense of wonder" or all gaga with special effects. That's no small feat.
The Wachowski brothers' Speed Racer was so self-conscious about being toylike that it strained to reinvent the wheel, or, rather, Hot Wheels, one reel at a time. Race to Witch Mountain may not make adults feel as if they're 10 again, but it will awaken their memories of Saturday matinees that upped children's adrenaline without blinding them with Day-Glo colors or insulting their intelligence.
This loose remake of the 1975 Disney live-action hit Escape to Witch Mountain breathes a larkish spirit into a sci-fi chase involving child aliens (AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig), who bring out the combat skills and fatherly virtues of a good-hearted Las Vegas cabbie with useful auto-racing experience (Dwayne Johnson). To ensure the survival of Earth as we know it, this unlikely trio must outmaneuver three grim avengers: a frightening outer-space assassin, the cabbie's former mob associates (he used to be a crime boss' wheelman) and a top U.S. agent (Ciaran Hinds) who wants to strap down the "illegal aliens" and mercilessly probe their secrets.
Along the way, they enlist the help of a comely, brilliant UFO expert (Carla Gugino) and her wacky rival (Garry Marshall), and in the movie's high point, they all tumble into each other at a Vegas "You Will Believe" convention. The movie has some of the charm of the crackpot assemblies Steven Spielberg put together for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, in which UFO observers mingled with, say, a fellow who saw Bigfoot. Without a heavy hand, the movie captures Americans' multifaceted fascination with extraterrestrial phenomena, from our amusement with zealots to our covert beliefs that some of what they say is true. (Cult figure Whitley Streiber, author of the alien-visitation best-seller Communion, makes a guest appearance.)
With her otherworldly gifts of concentration, Robb, spellbinding as the visionary youngster in The Bridge to Terebithia, was perfectly cast as the mind-reading, telepathic and telekinetic alien girl, and Ludwig brings a streak of baby-macho effrontery to her brother, whose gifts, such as the ability to stop a vehicle in its tracks and to decompose and recompose his body to get in and out of tight spots, somehow seem more manly. Their formal speech and bearing contrast amusingly with Vegas habitues as well as some rugged country-and-Western types.
What makes the movie consistently friendly and enjoyable is their funny chemistry with Johnson, who is still "the Rock" though he no longer goes by the name. He radiates physical intelligence the way they do mental intelligence, and he has burned away the cocked-eyebrow excesses he imported from his wrestling persona. He and Gugino share a no-nonsense bond: They size each other up and like what they see. Gugino, who even managed to bring a glimmer of humanity into Watchmen, presides over this movie like a sexy den mother.
The director, Andy Fickman, and the screenwriters, Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback, make up in enthusiasm and feathery conviction what they lack in inspiration. They know how to put together a package: Everything in this one fits, including the Bullitt poster on the cabbie's wall. And everyone in this film does his job, including Buck, who gets his deadpan laughs as the canine part of the good guys' team: a dog called Junkyard. The result may not be a diamond in the rough, but it is a nice, shiny zircon.
Race to Witch Mountain
(Walt Disney Pictures) Starring Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Alexander Ludwig. Directed by Andy Fickman. Rated PG for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous elements, and some thematic elements. Time 98 minutes.