Sunday, May 29, 2016

ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975) - ***


Rated G
Running time: 97 min.
Release date: March 21, 1975

Here is a family film with something for everyone. Strong sci-fi elements; a road adventure; there is even some comedy, both intentional and of the unintentional variety. Most of all, the movie has fun and most viewers would have trouble denying that they enjoyed some scenes. Disney live-action films from this era lacked a certain edge to them that would have appealed to the adults in the family; but here is a film that should capture their attention. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Alexander Key and retains some of the key elements of the book, such as greed and trust; something everyone can relate to. Even people not of this planet.

The film opens with brother and sister, Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) arriving at an orphanage. Their past is somewhat murky, as we find out courtesy of numerous flashbacks by Tia. It isn't long before we find out that these two kids are special. Tia has the ability to communicate telepathically with Tony, while Tony has the ability to levitate; during a game of baseball, he leaps high into the air to catch a fly ball hit by his suspicious rival, Truck. As a follow-up, when threatened by the bully, Tony shows the ability to make a baseball glove slap Truck in a funny scene. This makes the other children wary of the brother and sister. 

One day in town, Tia warns Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasance) not to get in his limousine because she sees something bad happening. Sure enough, he decided to walk and a tow truck plows into the side of his limo. Deranian takes this piece of information to his employer, Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland), who seems to be seeking some sort of mystical approach to building his fortune, as he listens to advice from astrologers and swamis. Bolt arranges for the children to be released to Deranian's care, who takes them to Bolt's mansion to stay. We get some great set decoration by Hal Gausman, as Bolt has created a fantsyland for these kids to feel comfortable, in order to win them over, eventually so that he may exploit their unique talents.

The children get a feeling that Bolt is not going to let them leave, so they hatch an escape plan that involves the telepathic unlocking of doors and telepathically convincing an untamed horse to spirit them away. Meanwhile, Bolt tasks Deranian with finding the kids and bring them back. We get a scene of Tia commanding the guard dogs to turn on their handlers, and their cat, Mr. Winky, also helps in special ways. The kids stow away in the RV of Jason O'Day (Eddie Albert), who is not too keen on the company at first, but quickly warms up to them and helps them on their journey. Where are they headed? Tia carries with her a "star case" that contains a secret map to a place that may or may not be where they are from. We get a few scenes of the kids trying to piece together their past, as the screenplay adaptation by Robert M. Young gets more than a little silly at times. The film turns into a chase movie with helicopters, police and shotgun-wielding locals.

John Hough directed the film and does an admirable job in keeping the tone light. Despite the sight of guns, the violence is non-existent. The visual effects are about what you would expect from a Disney movie from the 70's and are quite serviceable and keep with the whimsical tone of the film. The screenplay is very busy from scene to scene, and might seem questionable at times, but it holds a certain goofy charm, as evidenced in one scene where Tony has fun with a coat rack, a jacket, a hat and a broom in an attempt to creep out the sheriff. It's laugh out loud moments like this that make you realize how fun watching the movie could be. The ending might look ludicrous visually, but at least the scene makes sense in context.

Ray Milland did not play the typical antagonist; the Aristotle Bolt character was not threatening in any way, and could be perceived as a grumpy, old rich man who wanted something he couldn't keep; Donald Pleasance as Deranian came off as a nice enough fellow who was just doing the bidding of his employer. The children, as played by Eisenmann and Richards, had a cheerful impishness to them; Kim Richards added slightly more depth to her character during moments of flashbacks. Finally, if you need a man to play a well-meaning, lonely gentleman, look no further than Eddie Albert.

Overall, Escape to Witch Mountain is a light and fluffy affair, and pretty harmless fun. It doesn't answer every question you may have at the end, but there is enough charm and spirit here that you won't really care that you don't have all the answers you need. 


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