The Screening Room
THE STUDIO GATE
The 1970s was a time of transition in both movies and American culture. The
old Hays Code, that essentially censored movies for years, was dead. As
a result, moviemakers and studios were releasing more adult fare that
featured graphic violence, nudity and language. There were very few
movies made for children and their parents during this period. There
were children films being made, but few and far between. Walt Disney
Productions was the only reliable game in town. One of their most
successful movies was "Escape to Witch Mountain" (1975), and to a lesser
extent, its sequel, "Return from Witch Mountain" (1978).
"Escape to Witch Mountain" and "Return from Witch Mountain" are now
available on DVD.
Kid growing up in the 1970s seemed to be a rougher bunch than their
parents were. At least that's what our parents told us. They seemed to
grow up in cul-de-sacs when people left their front doors unlocked. They
were perfect children who honored their parents and got along with
everyone in school. That's the myth anyway. The '70s generation was
different, though. We cussed early on and seemed to be know-it-alls
about the adult world. Even our movies were tougher and slicker than our
parent's movies. They watched "The Ten Commandments" in theaters. We
watched it on TV. There movies were sanitized and sometimes goofy. Ours
were R-rated, and if they were PG-rated, our movies had cussing (i.e.
the original "Bad News Bears") and cartoonish violence (i.e. "Star
Walt Disney Productions was an island in the sea of movie change. My
peers would go see a PG movie like "Jaws" before they would see a Disney
movie. Deep down in our cynical hearts, we loved what Disney offered. We
were tough on the outside reciting bad words from the movies our parents
took us to see. But if our parents took us to see "Gus" or a re-release
of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," we were thrilled. We just wouldn't
admit it to our friends.
Contrary to popular myth, Walt Disney Productions wasn't totally asleep
during the 1970s. In fact, the company was producing new movies,
re-releasing its classics, and expanding its theme park business. The
only problem was that its movies were stuck in a time warp. They seemed
to be carbon copies of Walt Disney's final films he made during the
1960s. Yet, there was a certain comfort and expectation from seeing a
film from Disney. You knew their 1970s movies would be bland, but they
could still be entertaining enough.
The "Witch Mountain" movies weren't the greatest from the studio. In
fact, they were hokey. Yet by watching them today, one could see that
the Disney studio was trying to break out of its cocoon.
ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN (1975)
I can remember my friends telling me all about this movie and how great
it was. My parents, for some reason, didn't make time to go to the
movies too often. So I had to hear about "Escape to Witch Mountain" from
my friends. The movie had an effect on them. And why not? A story about
a brother (Ike Eisenmann) and his sister (Kim Richards) who had special
powers was cool!
The movie has all the conventions of a Disney film of the time
— overly bright lighting, projected backgrounds, shooting on
locations near or in Burbank, some silly visual effects, corny dialogue,
and old actors. Somehow, it all works in the end.
Tony & Tia are orphans who we'll learn are actually aliens with super
special powers. On the run from a mad millionaire (Ray Milland) and his
cohort (Donald Pleasence), the kids befriend an grumpy old man in Eddie
Albert. They hide in his Winnebago and they're off on an adventure.
Director John Hough brought a different aesthetic to Disney at the time.
The movie is very much rooted in simple Disney family entertainment with
all sorts of gags. Hough does a credible job in working with Eisenmann
and Richards, letting them be kids instead of cutsie child actors. He
even encouraged his film crew to shoot much of the film on location,
though most Disney films at the time tended to shoot around the studio
lot, or in the streets of Burbank.
One of the reasons why children gravitated towards this movie was due in
part to Eisenmann and Richards. They weren't merely on the screen to act
cute. They felt like most of us growing up with bullies and mad
millionaires chasing after us. Well, at least the bully part is true.
Both actors do a wonderful job in just being themselves.
The relationship between the kids and Eddie Albert is the heart of the
movie. The kids eventually wear Albert down and warm his heart. He's
believable as a grumpy old man, but he's charming. Both Ray Milland and
Donald Pleasence are fun bad guys, though they're never really
Even though Disney was known for its spectacular visual effects over the
years, the visual effects in this film are a bit cheesy. And that's part
of the charm. You get so engrossed in the story that you don't mind the
cheap effects. I'm guessing that Disney had put out quite a bit of cash
for its 1974 film, "Island at the Top of the World" and didn't want to
spend much on "Escape." You still can't beat the laughs that come out
when Albert's RV flies into the air.
RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN (1978)
Walt Disney once mentioned that he didn't do sequels, and "Return From
Witch Mountain" lends credence to his mantra.
The movie world had changed drastically by the time "Return" came to
theaters. "Star Wars" had raised the bar on visual effects and their
quality. It also redefined family entertainment. Audiences expected
superior visual effects and at least a little bit of edge to their
movies. Disney's sequel to "Witch Mountain" wasn't quite right on those
The sequel begins with a flying saucer beaming down Tony & Tia in the
middle of the Rose Bowl. They become separated on Skid Row in downtown
Los Angeles. Tony is kidnapped by Christopher Lee and Betty Davis. Tia
is lost and found by a group of tough kids (and that's stretching
things). Lee and Davis want to use Tony's extraordinary powers to
conquer the world!
The idea of a Disney movie from this era trying to be rough and hip was
pretty funny. Street gangs and Disney just didn't mix. But credit goes
to director Hough for trying new things. One of the surprises in the
film is the use of Steadicam. This was in the early days of the camera
rig and as far I as I can recall, it wasn't used too much. What is more
surprising is how well the Steadicam is used in this movie. The shots
are very smooth and used wisely. Too many films in the last few years
overdo it on the use of Steadicam.
Both Lee and Davis are good. Lee has always been delightful as a
villain. Davis truly brought her acting charm to the movie. But the
1970s was moving past the past and into the present. Disney must have
been on a hiring streak of old time actors in the 1970s. Perhaps they
thought that hiring great classic actors at a studio known for using its
own stock actors would put them back on the Hollywood map. It didn't.
Audiences, especially young ones, wanted to watch young actors in
fantasy films. We couldn't imagine Betty Davis or Christopher Lee with a
lightsaber (though Lee did appear in two "Star Wars" prequels many years
The effects aren't in same caliber as Disney's previous efforts. The
studio would eventually pour millions into a visual effects spectacular,
"The Black Hole" (1979) with far better effects. It wasn't enough for
audiences at this point to accept cheap and unrealistic looking effects
anymore. They wanted movies to open with shots in outer space and for
the space ships to look realistic.
The sequel doesn't quite have the magic of the original movie, though
it's not a bad movie. Watching it today is more of a way to remember
growing up in the 1970s. The movie falls flat with my daughter. She
doesn't marvel at the funky looking clothes, the black wires suspending
people and props in mid-air, or the 1978 Los Angeles skyline. At least I
find those visuals to be entertaining. It also reminds me of my crush on
Kim Richards, the only actress I ever wrote a fan letter to.
Now we have another remake of the "Witch Mountain" concept coming out on
March 13, 2009, "Race to Witch Mountain." I haven't seen the movie yet,
but here's my initial impression from the preview. Too slick, and Tony &
Tia don't seem to be anything like the charming kids from the 1970s
movies. Sometimes even a movie with rough edges like "Escape to Witch
Mountain" will be far more charming than a slick big budget movie. But
I'll reserve further judgment on "Race" until I see it. Until then, I'll
open up a stale package of Pop Rocks, and sigh when I see an adult Kim
Richards on the DVD supplements.
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © BVHE. All
DVD Quick Glimpse
The original "Witch Mountain" movies are hit
and miss, but still a joy
Director: John Hough
Cast: Ike Eisenmann, Kim Richards, Eddie Albert,
Christopher Lee, Betty Davis
"Making of," commentary, and more
Picture: Very Good
Before the big visual effects version of
"Witch Mountain," Disney's visual effects team
made RVs fly
Aspect Ratio (1.75:1)
Dolby Digital 5.1
DVD RELEASE DATE
March 10, 2009