Race to Witch Mountain: Taint Right

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Posted March 12, 2009 in Film

Let’s talk—really talk—about what kids want to see. It’s an apt moment for it. Two film adaptations of adult-lite graphic novels, Coraline and Watchmen, have had parents tussling over whether or not their young ‘uns can handle their dark themes. Not in question is Disney’s new adventure pic, Race to Witch Mountain, a flick about two alien teens and a taxi driver against the government, that despite its PG rating is arguably more cavalierly violent and cynical. It’s Die Hard for tweens, only instead of aligning with Bruce Willis against some deadly villains, we’re meant to unquestioningly align with the good guys even though they’re the only ones, save for an intergalactic assassin, who actually hurt anyone. (The government might threaten gunfire, but only ever sends people off with a warning.) In their quest to send paranormal siblings Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) back to their planet, the kids, perky scientist Carla Guigino, and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson smash cars and smash faces. I lost count of how many faceless government drones were thrown through windows, or worse, incinerated. In one scene, the gang makes a tidy escape through a tunnel at the cost of having an oncoming train complete with panicked conductor upend itself and burst into flames. In my review of Watchmen, I said it was “incredibly—not stupidly—violent.” Andy Fickman’s Disney flick is lobotomized. It cracks skulls for thrills, which is well and good when you’re lining up for Crank 2: High Voltage (which I totally am), but I’m uneasy that the prigs at the MPAA see the Disney castle at the opening credits and think nothing of its consciousless, consequenceless thuggery.

 

Maybe they were distracted by Johnson’s Grade A smile—it’s easy to fall under its sway. There were a few years when The Rock (as he will always be, for the man is truly no ‘Dwayne’) was poised to be the next mega-watt action star. His career missteps have left a void that Bruce Willis is still gamely deigning to fill; the wickedly fun Jason Statham serves a purpose, but while we might want to give him a high five, I’d never want him to rescue my daughter. Here, The Rock plugs away as an ex-con, NASCAR aspirant, and Las Vegas taxi driver destined for a collision with the universe. This isn’t a subtle movie: in his first minutes on film, he picks up first a pair of Star Wars troopers and then Carla Guigino’s astral theorist before dismissing Vegas as “like being on another planet.” That his next passengers are flaxen aliens is as fated as anything in Greek mythology. In short order, his taxi is destroyed by several high speed chases (the car’s rooftop ad for insurance is a wry product placement choice) and finds himself doing the reluctant hero routine, a stoic slog that affords him too few minutes to flash his electric chemistry.  

 

What’s just as cynical as the flick’s violence is screenwriters Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback’s view of the government as villain, complete with seething hatred of “illegal aliens” and quotes from the Patriot Act. It’s a rotten trick of timing that a dark plotline that would have felt bracing last election cycle now just two months into Obama’s tenure rings dated and flat. When supreme government villain Ciarán Hinds quaveringly takes a phone call from the White House, we can’t imagine that Obama is on the other end of the line ordering the children dead. Still, if I were 12, I’d be unnerved by the film’s passive acceptance of government surveillance, which here is so sharp that within two minutes of trying to find the nameless, faceless aliens that landed in the desert has them pinpointed to The Rock’s cab. Here, even the forests have cameras. When yet another bad guy falls in them, I hope the sound is parents standing up in the theatre and sneaking their kids into the screening of Coraline next door.


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