Saturday, January 22, 2011

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) & Return from Witch Mountain (1978)

          In the years between Walt Disney’s death in 1966 and the mid-’80s ascension of the storied Eisner/Katzenberg regime at the Walt Disney Company, the iconic studio’s live-action offerings drifted further and further away from the standard cutesy wholesomeness of Uncle Walt’s day. One of the strangest examples is Escape to Witch Mountain, a sci-fi adventure about super-powered orphans following a mysterious instinct to seek out a remote location—while also trying to evade the conniving corporate tycoon who wants to exploit their abilities. Even though the story is told in the standard spoon-fed Disney manner, the plot is so inherently cryptic and fraught with danger that Escape to Witch Mountain is as much of a thriller as it is a fantasy, and the revelation at the climax of the story (though wholly predictable) is an offbeat twist on the customary Disney happy ending. The movie isn’t especially exciting, but it’s brisk and distracting in a comic-book sort of way, and it almost completely avoids the cloying clichés of cute-kid movies because the young characters at the center of the movie are so strange.
          Among the strong grown-up supporting cast, Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence bring their considerable skills to bear as the creepy villains, while Eddie Albert is rock-solid in a thankless role as the kids’ accidental guardian, summoning credible disbelief as he slowly unravels the mystery of the kids’ origin. Starring as the children are ubiquitous ’70s TV players Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, both of whom adequately portray anxiety and disorientation while demonstrating bizarre abilities like telekinesis and telepathy; the faraway looks in their eyes sell their characterizations in a way their limited acting abilities cannot. The FX are strictly old-school, which gives the movie a quaint charm except in the rickety climax, when crappy process shots become distracting, but the novelty of the whole enterprise makes Escape to Witch Mountain watchable throughout.
          The sequel Return from Witch Mountain isn’t anywhere near as interesting. In the perfunctory storyline, Eisenmann’s and Richards’ characters return from the seclusion they entered at the end of the first picture for a vacation in L.A., where they’re discovered by crooks who try to exploit them. Despite the presence of impressive actors—the main crooks are played by Bette Davis and Christopher Lee, both looking bored as they deliver pedestrian dialogue—Return gets bogged down in overproduced slapstick, a drab subplot about Richards getting adopted by the nicest street gang in existence, a trite contrivance in which Eisenmann is turned into an automaton, and a generally overlong running time. However, it’s fun to see character players like Anthony James (Vanishing Point) and Jack Soo (Barney Miller) in major roles, and the climactic showdown between Richards and the mind-controlled Eisenman has some edge—too little, too late, though. In the where-are-they-now department, Richards returned to pop-culture prominence in 2009, when she and Eisenmann did cameos in the franchise reboot Race to Witch Mountain, and in 2010, when she joined the cast of the odious reality series The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Escape to Witch Mountain: FUNKY
Return from Witch Mountain: LAME

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