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Escape to Witch Mountain

Walt Disney's 1975 motion picture, Escape from Witch Mountain, based on a novel by Alexander Key, is a decent movie that makes me wish it had been a far better one. The story follows the flight of two orphaned children, a brother and sister named Tia and Tony, from a corrupt millionaire who desires to exploit their psychic and telekinetic talents. Tia carries a starcase, a small metal box that contains quite a secret: Tia and Tony are aliens. This is a nice set-up for an exciting suspense thriller, but that potential is only partially tapped.

The movie opens with the desparate running sounds of footfalls and panting. Against a dark watercolor image of a rather frightening mountain we see the outlines of two children running from animated attack dogs. Dramatic, scary music thunders and a nice suspenseful atmosphere is created. I love that opening credits sequence. Too bad this is the most exciting part of the movie.

To be fair, it is a children's movie, so there is a limit to violent and intense scenes the movie should feature. Nonetheless, the filmmakers overlooked just how frightening a movie can be and still be appropriate for kids. The hunters in Bambi, the dragon in Sleeping Beauty, and the whale in Pinocchio were every bit as scary as many chase scenes in modern action films. Children's novels from classics like Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn to modern ones such as H.M.Hoover's This Time of Darkness allow kids to enjoy some rather intense storytelling. In Witch Mountain the exciting sections, such as the escape from the millionaire's mansion, are atmospheric and well-staged, but frustratingly brief. They are interpsersed with scenes of annoying slapstick gags characteristic of Disney films from that era. Several chase sequences, and even several car crashes, are played for laughs (though they fail to actually elicit any). The two styles clash, and left me loving parts of the movie while hating others. Call it Jar-Jar-Binks Syndrome: The mistaken belief that kids will only like movies that interrupt exciting plots with patronizing silliness.

Some bottom-of-the-barrel special effects do not help matters, either. In a climatic moment, a flying RV and an upside-down helicopter look like flat images cut and pasted onto a background. I do not expect as much from pre-Star Wars trick photography, but this was substandard even for the time; The Absent-minded Profesor featured a rather convincing flying Model-T fifteen years earlier.

Despite its failings, Witch Mountain's ending left the door open for some potentially wonderful sequels. I would have loved to see Tia and Tony searching for other lost children with starcases or trying to stop Earth from dying as their homeworld did. However, instead of filming one of these great follow-ups, Disney released Return from Witch Mountain, a stupid and cliched movie in which Tony is captured by a mad scientist with dreams of world domination. Yuck.

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