Like yesterday’s review of Mr. Boogedy, I had little experience with the original Escape to Witch Mountain, although it has better name recognition than the former film. The story of two alien children being hunted by a wealthy millionaire boasted serious longevity for the company, spawning a sequel, a TV movie, a remake (the 1995 remake is the version I first saw), and a feature-length version with Dwayne Johnson (that I also saw and remember little of). The original Witch Mountain may have rudimentary effects – two years later Star Wars would change the effects landscape – and has some logic flaws, but it’s an effective and exciting chase movie with great performances from its child stars.
Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) are orphans struggling to recall the details of their past. Their mysterious abilities, including telepathy, are noticed by the villainous Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasance) who alerts his employer, the wealthy Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland). The children escape Bolt and take refuge with a crusty old man named Jason O’Day (Eddie Albert) in the hopes he’ll take them to Witch Mountain.
If you’ve followed my Journeys in the Disney Vault series from a few years ago, the 1970s saw Disney firmly embrace their live-action unit, producing only four animated films in the entire decade. 1975, specifically, saw six movies from the studio, of which Escape to Witch Mountain is probably the best remembered of the year.
Director John Hough wouldn’t be a name you’d expect Disney to get in bed with, although based on his filmography his presence here makes sense. The year before he’d directed the car caper Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry, and the fact that 80% of the film involves cars (and helicopters) chasing each other helps things make sense. He also directed 1973’s The Legend of Hell House, and would return to Disney in 1982 helming the cult classic The Watcher in the Woods. There isn’t a need for bombastic camera trickery, but Hough really loves medium zooms, either in or out, as if they just discovered that feature on the camera.
Much of Escape to Witch Mountain must be taken on blind faith, like most of the great Disney classics. I found myself with a litany of questions by the end, probably loose threads created by deviating from Alexander Key’s source material. However, events move so briskly that you can never say you’re bored by the experience. Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards aid immensely in the enjoyment of Escape to Witch Mountain. Their nearly perfect looks – especially Richards with her long, blonde California mien – are reminiscent of the children in Village of the Damned. They’re never too alien in that perfectly mannered, analytical way some children in horror/sci-fi films are. They have defined personalities, Richards, in particular.
The subsequent sequel would capitalize on big name stars establishing a bit of a come-down by appearing in a kid’s film. Donald Pleasance and Ray Milland are fun to watch in roles that feel rather ill-defined. If anything, you know who the bad guys are: old, bald, white men. Playing the typical evil millionaire, Milland’s Aristotle Bolt has a scarier sounding name than personality. We’re never clear on why he wants the children, short of making more money. For a company boasting billions their movies showed money is the root of all evil. Pleasance plays Bolt’s henchman and I wanted to see more of him. Considering he forges documents in order to adopt the children, some type with the kids playing “Uncle Lucas” would have gone a great way towards either showing him as a reluctant villain or completely devoted to Bolt. (And, for that matter, why is he so devoted to Bolt? Bolt never promises him anything…dare I say a love match?)
As the benevolent father figure, Eddie Albert conveys warmth and sincerity. Tia’s reveal of Jason’s tortured past gives a weight to his crustiness. When he asks the kids if he can consider them his own, it has resonance because we’ve watched them bond. The film’s final scene alludes to sequels, of which Albert appeared, but it’s doubtful he had the same chemistry with other child stars.
I could end with all the lingering questions the script left me with, but part of the fun is the questions. Unlike most movies, the questions don’t hinder your enjoyment but do give you a few good laughs. For instance, why did their Uncle Bene (Denver Pyle) just abandon them? The two make it to a place where all the kids are asked to gather, but if he can talk to them telepathically, why need the map at all? But the best Disney films take you on a journey, logic be damned, and that’s what this did. I can’t say Escape to Witch Mountain is my favorite Disney feature film, it isn’t, but it’s far better than expected and shows the true strength of what Disney was known for: escapism and amazing child stars.
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