Get ready for adventure that's out of this world!
In the 1970s, the Walt Disney Company's live action film machine was starting to sputter and die. With a desire to hold on to the innocence of the past, yet knowing they must move forward into the future, Disney released movies that tried to be everything rolled into one package. More often than not, they succeeded only in being big hunks of '70s cinematic cheese. Case in point: Escape to Witch Mountain and its sequel Return to Witch Mountain. Both films are now on DVD in new special editions courtesy of the Mouse House.
Facts of the Case
Escape to Witch Mountain:
This film also comes with a short cartoon, "Pluto's Dream House."
Return from Witch Mountain
Those wacky kids with the mind powers are back from Witch Mountain, and boy have they grown! Tia (Richards) and Tony (Eisenmann) may have matured a bit, but that doesn't mean they've grown out having the knack for finding trouble! No sooner than their Uncle Bene (Denver Pyle, TV's The Dukes of Hazzard) drops them off at the Rose Bowl for a visit to town do the two teens find themselves in more trouble than a cauldron full of space aliens. When Tony saves a man from falling off a building, the villainous Dr. Victor Gannon (Christopher Lee, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) and his associate, Letha (screen legend Bette Davis), kidnap Tony for their own evil purposes. It seems that Dr. Gannon has invented a mind control device that allows him to control his victim's every moves. When Tony is put under Gannon's hypnotic spell, he uses his telepathy powers for evil instead of good (it seems the evil doctor wants to hold a nuclear plant for ransom, or some silliness like that). It's now up to Tia and a band of misfit children to save Tony before Dr. Gannon takes over the entire world.
This film also comes with a short cartoon, "The Eyes Have It."
I realize that there are those readers who have a secret affinity for the Witch Mountain movies from their childhood. It seems that without fail we all have some movie, song, or book that we experienced as youngsters that transcended into a guilty pleasure once we became adults. I know that Ski Patrol is a crappy movie, but because I saw it as a kid, I've still got a soft spot for it in my heart. You may feel the same way about Escape to Witch Mountain and Return to Witch Mountain.
I, however, do not.
I really, really wanted to like these movies. I was hoping that maybe I'd seen them as a kid and the memories would bubble over after watching them on DVD. No such luck. Both Witch Mountain films are sluggishly paced and as substantial as cotton candy. This is what passed for family entertainment in the 1970s? I thank the good Lord that I spent most of my youth in the decade of the Transformers and The Dark Crystal.
In the first installment, Escape to Witch Mountain, director John Hough stages many stunts that involve people and things flying all over the place. This would all be well and good if the children's talents had any defined boundaries. Instead, Tia and Tony seem to have almost deity sized powers that include (but are seemingly not limited to) reading each other's minds, controlling animals, moving cars, and other bizarre activities. Not surprisingly, their powers completely eclipse their personalities—the children laugh and delight in various adventures, even when imminent danger is looming over their heads. Maybe they realize they're in a Disney film and no harm can come to them as long as they're giggling. Richards and Eisenmann are cute to look at but have little in the way of charisma—most of the time it feels as if they're just reciting their lines instead of actually acting. Escape to Witch Mountain is essentially one big chase film as kids hitch a ride with Eddie Albert, doing his best impression of an actor who actually cares for this material. Donald Pleasence and Oscar winner Ray Milland (for The Lost Weekend) are given little to do except chase the children down and look slightly mean (if they were really bad this wouldn't be a Disney movie, now would it?). Since the ending is predictable, the rest of the film feels like padding until the children reach the obvious conclusion. So much for the old saying "half of the fun is getting there."
Even less interesting is Return from Witch Mountain, a needless sequel where Christopher Lee and Bette Davis get to overact while looking like they'd rather be anywhere else but this movie. Over the past few years younger audiences have rediscovered Lee as Saruman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Count Dooku in the new Star Wars films. It's a good thing fans gave the actor leeway, forgetting and forgiving past stumbles like Return from Witch Mountain—Lee gives his blandest performance as a villain who wants to conquer the world with a telepathic child (apparently a clairvoyant dog wasn't available). Ho-hum. Bette Davis, who at the time of filming appears to be 658 years old, plays Lee's henchwoman. Davis, once a screen icon, was reduced to starring in these cruddy Disney family flicks (including the equally tepid Watcher in the Woods). Where's the bitchy old Bette we'd all come to know and love? By this point Kim Richards (Tia) and Eisenmann (Tony) had become teenagers, and their cuteness factor (especially Eisenmann) had worn thin. However, to make up for their growth spurt a batch of homeless kids were brought in to fill in the gap. With names like "Dazzler" and "Muscles," it was obvious these were kids who just needed the right breaks (i.e., a contrived screenplay) to be shown the way to Disney happiness. As in the first film, Return from Witch Mountain's story is pretty flaccid—Tony is kidnapped and Tia has to save him, end of story. However, I did like the minor twist at the end (I got three words for you: Tony vs. Tia!). Otherwise, this is pretty standard stuff that, after 25 years, doesn't hold up.
I stress this one fact: if you liked Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain as a kid, you'll most likely get a kick out of these discs. Kids may also enjoy the adventures of Tia and Tony. For the rest of you these movies will end up being a tedious three-hour watch no matter what planet you're from.
Both Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain are presented in 1.75:1 anamorphic widescreen. Considering the films' age and budget, both of these transfers look better than expected. While neither of these movies will be mistaken for Lord of the Rings, each sport solid color patterns and dark black levels (with only a slight amount of graying in the image). There is a small amount of dirt and grain in the images and the images sometimes look fuzzy in various scenes. Of the two films Return from Witch Mountain appears to be in the best shape, if only by a hair. Fans of the films will be more than happy to see these films finally presented in their original widescreen format with minimal imperfections.
The soundtracks for both films are presented in newly remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mixes. Hoo-wee, nothing like hearing stiffly rendered child dialogue in 5.1 surround! Actually, both of these soundtracks are in better shape that I anticipated—the dialogue is mostly clear of any hiss or distortion. The dynamic range is lacking, though there are a few directional effects to be found (even if they often sound canned and forced). As is the case with many remixes, the biggest boost comes in the form of the goofy '70s music scores by Johnny Mandel and Lalo Schifrin, respectively. Also included on these discs are English subtitles for each film.
If you're a diehard Witch fan, you'll be thrilled with all the extra features Buena Vista's slapped on these two discs. Here's a run down of what's been included on Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain:
Commentary Tracks by Director John Hough, Kim Richards, and Ike Eisenmann: Both movies sport a commentary track by the stars and director. I was impressed with how chatty all of the participants ended up being. Even more surprising was Eisenmann discussing how a few of the younger actors wanted get Richards alone in her trailer! And this is a Disney film, for goodness sake! Combined these tracks provide a wealth of information, including stories about the shoots, the casting, the major stars (Bette Davis, Eddie Albert, Christopher Lee), and what it's like for the stars to watch the movies in 2003. If you are a fan of the film, it's likely you'll have great fun listening to these commentaries.
Conversations with Director John Hough: This short interview with Hough sports the director discussing his work with the Disney studios, his early work on English TV shows like The Saint and The Avengers, and why he wanted to make sure he had a long life in the film industry. This feature is available on Escape to Witch Mountain and is a nice peek at this relatively unknown director.
"Making the Escape" and "Making the Return Trip" Featurettes": I assume that these were filmed at the same time and then cut together to make two separate featurettes, one for each film. Each featurette includes interviews with director John Hough, stars Kim Richards, Ike Eisenmann, Dermott Downs, Erik Yothers, Christian Juttner, and other cast and crewmembers. This is where fans will find all things Witch Mountain. Included here are rare production stills, behind-the-scenes footage, lots of interview footage, stories about what it was like to be on the sets, work with the Disney moniker, be a kid around all those famous adults, et cetera, et cetera. Each of these featurettes lasts around a half-hour, so you know you're getting a lot of film bang for your buck. I have to commend Disney on these documentaries—the films may not be very good, but their efforts on these retrospectives are.
Lost Treasures: The featurette on Escape to Witch Mountain, "Disney Effects—Something Special," includes interview footage with visual effects designer Harrison Ellenshaw, executive director of Buena Vista imaging John S. Chambers, and others, discussing the visual effects in various Disney films (including their first on-the-lot shoot, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). On Return from Witch Mountain, the lost treasure supplement is a foreign interview with Christopher Lee and his big, badass black moustache.
The Gang's Back in Town: This feature is a reunion of sorts with three of the kids who were featured in Return from Witch Mountain, AKA the Earthquake Gang. Brad Savage ("Muscles"), Erik Yothers ("Crusher"), and Christian Juttner ("Dazzler") get together to discuss what it was like making the film, and what they're up to in 2003.
Disney Sci-Fi: This is a short montage of clips from various Disney science fiction movies set to techno music. This feature is available on Escape to Witch Mountain.
Escape to Witch Mountain Galleries / Return from Witch Mountain Galleries: Included on each disc are productions stills, advertising materials (comic books, lobby cards, posters, et cetera), and biographies of various actors.
Disney Kids with Power: Yet another pointless montage that features various clips from Disney movies about kids with abnormal powers. This is included on Return from Witch Mountain.
1975 and 1978 Disney Studio Albums: Each of these studio albums are just spliced together clips from various Disney efforts (TV, movies, cartoons) from each respective year.
Buena Vista has put forth extra effort into these discs, and for that I commend them. Sadly, I can't say that I enjoyed the movies themselves—they're caught in some 1970s time warp and will most likely appeal only to nostalgia fans and small children. If you're in either of those camps, I'm sure both of these discs will be right up your ally.
Escape to Witch Mountain and Return from Witch Mountain are sentenced to be burned at the stake…but only for a few minutes. This is a Disney review, after all!
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Scales of Justice, Escape To Witch Mountain
Perp Profile, Escape To Witch Mountain
Distinguishing Marks, Escape To Witch Mountain
• Commentary Track by Director John Hough and Stars Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann
Scales of Justice, Return From Witch Mountain
Perp Profile, Return From Witch Mountain
Distinguishing Marks, Return From Witch Mountain
• Commentary Track by Director John Hough and Stars Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann
Review content copyright © 2003 Patrick Naugle; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.