Escape To Witch Mountain
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Escape To Witch Mountain

Walt Disney Studios may be best known for their animated films that sometimes you can just forget that they have also been producing live action family films for decades. In many ways there are similar to their animated brothers in that they have to tread the fine line between being interesting to the kids while keeping the adults watching with them suitably engaged. One example of a success in this field is the 1975 movie ‘Escape to Witch Mountain’. The film was originally released as the annual Disney Easter offering; a perfect time for a family flick since the kids are on break from school and the parents are going crazy trying to keep them busy. Admittedly it is not the best of Disney’s live action movies but it does provide a lot of entertainment and does everything that a family flick is supposed to accomplish. It has a pair of adorable children as the protagonists guided by a kindly adult. There is a dastardly villain who is out to capture the kids and use them for his own evil plans. The film contains age appropriate danger and excitement without being as violent or scary as to keep the children up with nightmares. In other words it is fun is a fun and harmless flick that everybody in the family can get into. The film may lack the charm of something ‘the Absent Minded Professor’ or the quirkiness of ‘The Shaggy Dog’ but it has more than enough good points to it. Most of Disney’s live action flicks can be divided into two categories; science fiction or magic. In this case Sci-Fi is the properly assigned genre. While this genre is most frequently associated with more intense stories it has always been a favorite with the younger set. Many of my peer group from the fifties got their start with literature and movies with Sci-Fi. There is an inherent sense of wonderment and thrills that makes this type of story perfect for all ages. Like an animated movie a Sci-Fi flick doesn’t have to obey the normal rules of the physical universe. It is a lot like magic in many ways. In fact famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke once noted that any technology beyond our own level of accomplishment would appear indistinguishable from magic. This also provides a plot device that can help to bridge the often conflicting expectations of the children and adults. From the child’s point of view the amazing things that the kids on the movie can do seem like magic. For the parents there is an intellectually satisfying way out of such incredible powers that is explained in the context of science fiction. Now is the perfect time for Disney to revisit this film. They are releasing it and the first sequel ‘Return to Witch Mountain; on DVD as part of their ‘Family Classic’ line. It also coincides with the 2009 release of the remake ‘Race to Witch Mountain.

The story originated with the novel of the same name by Alexander Key. Fans of the book will have to accept a simple fact of life that the story in the movie has numerous alterations from the novel. A lot of people a re prone to complain about this but when you consider that cinema and literature are two completely different formats for telling a story such differences are natural. In order toe be true to even a rather simple story line a film would have to be longer than usual. For a movie primarily geared towards children this has typically been the kiss of death. It is difficult to get a child to sit still for over two hours. The writer of the screenplay, Robert M. Young, understood this and streamlined the story to fit in the 97 minute time frame. Before working for the Mouse on this story Young had considerable experience in television. Most of that was in highly successful series that included ‘Marcus Welby’ and ‘Night Gallery’. The later provided experience with tales that are more inclined to the paranormal. This story was designed to tug at the old heart strings. The brother and sister at the center of the action; Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia Malone (Kim Richards) are orphans. Throughout time an orphan has been seen as a child deserving of special protection and assistance. It you want to set up a bad guy just let him go to the local orphanage to look for kids to exploit.

Directing the movie was John Hough who also had a lot of previous television experience. In this flick Hough manages a very difficult task; he holds the narrative of the story together in the midst of child oriented fantasy. There are so many challenges inherent in a film of this type that it is amazing that any director would want to take it on. First there are the children. Bylaw they can only work a couple of hours a day and tutors have to be on set. There is also a featured role for a bear. When you have to reconcile the schedule demands of children and animals you have a nightmare of a project plan going. The last factor adding to the degree of difficulty is the special effects. This was years before the digital age and the computer revolution so if you wanted to see a boy fly you had to hook him up to wires and hope for the best. With all of this working against him Hough did a very good job of bringing out a workable family movie. He paces the film in such a way as to not bore the children or adults. We are immediately introduced to the children and not long afterwards the diabolical plot against them is hatched. The film moves along peppered with enough action and danger to keep things interesting.

Tony and Tia are orphans who do not remember much of their young lives. There are fragments of memories that are more confusing than helpful. They are also endowed with some very special powers. Tia is clairvoyant and telepathic. She also has a degree of telekinesis that enables her to move small objects and manipulate locks and other mechanisms. Her brother Tony also has telekinesis to a greater degree especially when his focus is added by playing his harmonica. He can hear Tia’s thoughts but is unable to send her any mental messages. Tia can also use her mental abilities to control animals that turns out to be very useful. They have fragments of memories of a ship wreck at sea and the loss of a dear uncle but little more to inform them of their origins. The only other clue is the star case which is more of a mystery than anything else. Their abilities come to the attention of Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland) who has an obsession with the occult. He is determined to capture the kids and use their powers to become even richer and more powerful. The siblings try to escape by sneaking into an old motor home owned by Jason O'Day (Eddie Albert). He decides to help them and the chase is on.

The film is enjoyable and well suited to a family movie night. Just put on the popcorn and sit back. As is typical for a Disney release there are plenty of extras also included such as a new pop up trivia section and a look at Disney science fiction. There is also a featurette on the special effects which may seem dated but this was near state of the art back in the day.

Posted 03/04/09

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