The people responsible for Disney's franchise reboot Race to Witch Mountain could have churned out a by-the-numbers piece of junk, and still made a mint off the parents with fond memories of the originals who dutifully take their kids to see it. Thankfully, everybody involved went the other route, and audiences will be able to tell how much the people involved actually cared about what they were making. Director Andy Fickman, working from a solid screenplay by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback, creates the cinematic equivalent of a ride on Space Mountain -- it's exhilarating, fun, just a tad scary, and totally satisfying. Dwayne Johnson (the artist formerly known as "The Rock") plays Jack Bruno, a tough-guy cab driver with a shady past. One day, a pair of very odd teens -- Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) and Seth (Alexander Ludwig) -- suddenly materialize in the back seat of his taxi. In their overly formal, emotionless speech patterns they ask "Jack Bruno" (both address him by his full name at all times) to take them to a remote location out in the desert. He's unsure what to make of the pair, but the huge wad of cash they offer cinches the deal. As they drive through the middle of nowhere, a couple of scary black cars appear and begin to menacingly chase the taxi -- the first of many well-choreographed action sequences. Thanks to Jack's skill behind the wheel, he and the kids survive the attack, and slowly the boy and girl -- who turn out to be light-years away from home -- learn that this human might be the only person they can trust to save not only their own planet, but Earth as well.
What's great about the film is that there are almost no dialogue-heavy scenes. This is a movie about momentum; it's a chase movie, and the action neither overwhelms nor slows down for the easy-to-follow storyline. Also, the filmmakers don't dumb down this material -- it's family-friendly in the best sense of the phrase. It includes lots of UFO folklore, but it's far from an Unexplained Phenomenon 101 class. Those who know why Project Bluebook, Roswell, and Whitley Strieber matter to UFO enthusiasts will chuckle, but these pieces are there for color, not plot; it's not about a conspiracy -- it's an action movie, and a very exciting one thanks to intelligent editing and very appealing performances.
As a pro wrestler, Dwayne Johnson learned how to ham it up, but he's a savvy enough performer to know how far he can push it. But here, he underplays his character, and that decision makes the flying saucers and telekinesis and alien assassins all the more thrilling. He plays well off both the kids, especially Robb, who -- between her work in this, Bridge to Terabithia, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory -- possesses a versatility rarely seen in 15-year-olds. Of course, a good action film needs a formidable bad guy, and the movie has two. Ciaran Hinds plays the menacing government official ordered to keep the kids on Earth, and his long, deeply lined face gives his character the same kind of sinister, mysterious power the Cigarette Smoking Man had in The X-Files. The other fearsome foe, an intergalactic assassin sent to kill Sara and Seth, is a helmeted monster that's one part Storm Trooper and one part Predator -- its unmasking is a scary, gross-out highlight. Race to Witch Mountain isn't some kind of action watershed, or science-fiction milestone, but it most certainly is a finely crafted reboot of a franchise that was ripe for an updating. The decision to cash in on the Witch Mountain name might have been business, but the film itself is a pleasure.