Disney // 1978 // 94 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // March 11th, 2009
Sinister forces from this world against two young space travelers from another!
In anticipation of their new remake/update/sequel/re-imagining Race to Witch Mountain, Disney is re-releasing the original '70s films Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain. How do they hold up? Let's take a look at the new Return from Witch Mountain: Special Edition and find out.
Those wacky alien kids from Escape to Witch Mountain are back! Having been cooped up on Witch Mountain long enough, Tia (Kim Richards, Tuff Turf) and Tony (Ike Eisenmann) arrive in Los Angeles for a vacation. But Ike is quickly abducted by the evil Dr. Victor Gannon (Christopher Lee, Gremlins 2: The New Batch) and the greedy Letha Wedge (Bette Davis, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?), who is bankrolling Gannon's world domination schemes. It's up to Tia and a sorry group of delinquents known as "The Earthquake Gang" to get Tony back before his powers can be used to take over the world. And, if there's time, maybe they can do a little sightseeing.
When I was a kid, my local library used to offer kids' movie screenings once a month or so. They were free, projected in 16mm onto a roll-up screen, and we would all sit on the floor of the room called "Kids Corner" and watch whatever it was they happened to show that month. Most of them were of the 1960s and '70s live-action Disney variety -- movies a lot like Return from Witch Mountain.
I mention this not because I remember seeing Return from Witch Mountain under these conditions, but because watching Disney's new special edition DVD of the film made me nostalgic for the entire genre. They don't make movies like Return from Witch Mountain anymore. These days, most movies for kids are animated fare about talking CGI animals; that's fine for a movie or two, but shouldn't be the only game in town (I recently saw Henry Selcik's Coraline, which gave me hope that my son may still get the kind of movies I grew up on). Growing up in the '80s (I missed the Witch Mountain films by a couple of years), I was watching movies like The Dark Crystal, Time Bandits, The Neverending Story, Something Wicked This Way Comes -- probably the last live-action Disney film to do what it is I'm talking about correctly. Those were films that felt a little off; they were fantasies, sure, but there was a real sense of danger and an oddness that was scary-in-a-good-way. They were engaging and somewhat mysterious. I miss that.
Return from Witch Mountain isn't all of those things, but it's certainly a predecessor to these movies. It's a little tamer, but there's still a sense of fantasy that speaks directly to kids without condescending to them. The two lead characters are kids, yes, but really they're aliens with telekinetic powers. The bad guys want to take over the world and enslave the extraterrestrial kids. The kids have powers and do cool things like fly and levitate and control matter with their minds, but they also do evil things (under mind control, of course). There's not necessarily a genuine feeling of danger, but the movie is just a little darker and a little more unusual than standard kid fare.
This doesn't mean Return from Witch Mountain is a perfect movie. It's meandering and goofy, badly dated in places, and lacking a whole lot of logic. Christopher Lee has some fun, as a villain bent on world domination, but Bette Davis's role feels more like a supporting character on an episode of Scooby-Doo. The film in general is a bit heavy on dopey characters, from the non-threat of Davis and goon Anthony James, to Jack Soo's truant officer, to the C-grade Earthquake Gang. It's too much goofy comic relief, too much stupidity for the movie to carry. The Earthquake Gang is a particularly obnoxious conceit, and they spend most of the film side-by-side with the lead actress. In trying to lighten the tone established in Escape and make the movie more family-friendly, the producers of Return spoiled some of what was good about the series.
Disney has seen fit to include a whole bunch of extras on this new, "Special Edition" of Return From Witch Mountain, many of which are a lot of fun. A commentary track by director John Hough and stars Ike Eisenmann & Kim Richards (Hough was recorded separately from the other two) is reasonably entertaining, with Hough supplying the drier technical information and the two former child actors having more fun joking about what's on screen. It's not going to be of much interest to kids, but I get the feeling the DVD is mainly for adults who grew up on the movie. In addition to the commentary, you can access a "pop-up" trivia track, which runs the course of the film. Most of the trivia is pretty tangential to what's going on and can easily be skipped.
The first featurette is a retrospective "making-of" piece which collects interviews and comments from most of the film's major players, including director John Hough and most of the child actors. It's an entertaining piece, with everyone remembering the film fondly and, for the most part, recognizing its shortcomings. They talk about what it was like for all the kids to work together and some basic behind-the-scenes stuff. Kim Richards makes one canny observation: she says Disney was very clever to give the alien kids the ability to fly, because all kids dream of being able to fly.
A brief interview reuniting three of the four actors who played The Earthquake Gang is included, where they talk about their experiences making the movie and what they're all doing now. It's a little superfluous, primarily because the Earthquake Gang is one of the things in the movie I could do without. They all seem like nice guys, but their comments don't amount to much.
There's a clip montage called "Disney Kids with Powers," which is pretty much what it sounds like: a collection of clips from the heyday of Disney live action (though a few more contemporary films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and animated films are included) showcasing kids doing magical things. It's lightweight, but fun -- particularly for Disney fans. Another montage, "Disney Studio Album 1978," is equally fun, highlighting the studio's theatrical and TV output for the year (including The Cat from Outer Space, Candleshoe, Hot Lead and Cold Feet, and more), significant events (Mickey Mouse turned 50) and more. Rounding out the special features is a Donald Duck cartoon from 1945 called The Eyes Have It. It's another neat inclusion, though I wish Disney would have provided an option that would allow the cartoon to play before the film.
Return from Witch Mountain isn't a perfect film, but it's a pleasant piece of nostalgia. Kids today may not have the patience for it (especially if the trailers for Race to Witch Mountain are any indication), but anyone who grew up on the film is likely to enjoy the package Disney has put together.
Guilty only of being a product of its time, which is also what I like best
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Vintage Cartoon
* Trivia Track (new!)