[Screen It]

(2009) (Dwayne Johnson, Annasophia Robb) (PG)

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Action/Adventure: A Las Vegas cabbie discovers that his two young passengers are actually aliens from another world and must protect the kids from government agents and an alien assassin who want to capture and/or kill them.
Jack Bruno (DWAYNE JOHNSON) is an ex-con who now works as a cabbie in Vegas. After handling some goons that work for a crime boss who has a connection to him, Jack is surprised to find teens Sara (ANNASOPHIA ROBB) and Seth (ALEXANDER LUDWIG) in his backseat with a wad of cash and a desire to be driven into the desert. He's reluctant, but the money looks good, so he proceeds, only to then be pursued by Department of Defense official Henry Burke (CIARÁN HINDS), and his subordinates Matheson (TOM EVERETT SCOTT) and Pope (CHRIS MARQUETTE), among other feds, who want the kids.

And that's not because they're juvenile delinquents are runaways, but rather extraterrestrials who've crash-landed on Earth. That's a surprise to Jack who initially thinks their pursuers work for the crime boss, but once the kids demonstrate their paranormal powers, he's a believer. Despite his instincts telling him otherwise, Jack decides to protect the kids, and eventually enlists the aid of Dr. Alex Friedman (CARLA GUGINO), a failed astrophysicist who's speaking at a UFO convention, as well as UFO author Dr. Donald Harlan (GARRY MARSHALL).

As they try to get the kids back to their ship before it's too late, they must not only contend with Burke and his armed feds who are always one step behind them, but also with the alien assassin Siphon (TOM WOODRUFF, JR.) who wants to kill the kids before they complete their mission on Earth.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
When it comes to being parents, there are those who are ideally suited for such roles and simply love kids. Others would like to have them, but can't for any number of reasons. And then there are those who don't want children -- also for a variety of causes -- with a subset of those being the kind who'd rather be strapped down and forced to watch ("Clockwork Orange" style) a marathon of filmdom's worst offerings then be stuck with any kid.

Speaking of Hollywood, it's portrayed all of the above adults in any number of movies and genres, but it's the latter category that usually ends up in the comedy field. And speaking of Fields, W.C. was one of the most notable to play the anti-child curmudgeon, to be followed by many others over the years whose characters were subjected to the antics of brats, snarky kids and/or those who simply recognized the adult's uncomfortableness and/or awkwardness around them and thus took full advantage of that.

Imagine then, if you're such an adult and the kids who you're stuck with are in trouble with the law, but not in the truant or shoplifting offense sort of way. Instead, they're illegal aliens, and then not even the kind from somewhere on the other side of the national border, but rather a global one.

That's the premise of "Race to Witch Mountain," where Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. "The Rock") plays a Vegas cabbie suddenly accompanied by two blond teens with a wad of cash and a desire to be driven off into the middle of the desert. Before you can say "phone home" or "are we there yet?" (the latter of which, by the way, is uttered in a not particularly funny moment), not only are the feds hot on the trail and tail of the long-fare cab, but so is an alien assassin (that's apparently watched "Predator" too many times via an intergalactic transmission). He/it wants the siblings, who are really extraterrestrials with paranormal powers, dead, and not via some "War of the Worlds" common cold method.

If any of that sounds remotely familiar (beyond those cinematic references), it's because this offering is a rebooting, as they like to call remakes nowadays, of the "Witch Mountain" Disney films from the 1970s (specifically 1975's "Escape to Witch Mountain" and its sequel, 1978's "Return from Witch Mountain").

I'm pretty sure I saw one or both films back when they originally came out, but honestly can't remember much if anything about them, the basic plot, and/or whether I liked them at that stage in my life. Accordingly, there's no way to do a comparison, so the new film will have to judged solely on its own, standalone merits (which is pretty much how all pics should be viewed, regardless of any personal biases).

While today's younger kids might enjoy the comedy and far more prevalent action and suspense, this film might just slip from their memory as easily as the predecessors did from mine. And that's because director Andy Fickman and screenwriters Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback simply don't do much, if anything special with the material.

Sure, there's lots of action and violence (actually a surprising amount of the latter for a PG film, what with repeated attempts at killing the main characters, and not in a slapstick or cartoon sort of way). Yet, while it's fairly frenetic (with lots of bouncy camerawork to drive home that point), it never comes off as anything above and/or beyond standard issue.

The same holds true for the comedy side, where the filmmakers don't really attempt to do much with the children and unwilling guardian angle, or the "fish out of water" alien angle. Although I was pleased the pic didn't go the route of those obnoxiously awful (or is that awfully obnoxious?) Ice Cube movies where he's stuck with kids, I was surprised by the limited quantity of said material, particularly considering the setup.

All of which is too bad since Johnson has proved he can ably handle both action and comedy, which I'm guessing is why he was cast in the role. Alas, the screenplay does him no favors in terms of lobbing up material for him to knock out to the ring, so to speak, while the kids -- played by Annasophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig -- are limited by the nature of their roles (all-business aliens who want to get in, get the job done and then get out of Dodge) as well as very little comedy stemming from their unfamiliarity with our world, customs and more.

Ciarán Hinds plays the Peter "E.T." Coyote part but without a trace of any of the humanity, while Tom Everett Scott continues his streak of not finding a film that can utilize his easy-going talents as occurred in "That Thing You Do" (paging Tom Hanks, paging Tom Hanks, please return to the director's chair). Carla Gugino appears as the pseudo love interest meets topical expert character, but similarly can't do anything with the part, while the less said about Garry Marshall as a UFO expert/author, the better.

Although I'm guessing the pic will find an audience since it has the name recognition for boomers, the family movie look, and is being released at the time of year when similar "kids bug uncomfortable/irritated/annoyed adult" films have succeeded, I just wish it were better made.

Perhaps Disney's Pixar division should branch out into live-action films (and the inevitable sequel for this pic), as I can only imagine what those filmmakers could have done with something alone these lines. While it's not awful, the offering is so pedestrian, not to mention lacking flair and finesse, that there's no real need to race out to see "Race to Witch Mountain." It rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed March 9, 2009 / Posted March 13, 2009

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