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witch mountain movies
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 Wars").

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 threatening. 

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 levels.

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 later).

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.        

Bill Kallay

Special thanks to Click Communications

Photos: BVHE. All rights reserved.
DVD Quick Glimpse
escape from witch mtnreturn from witch mtn





MOVIE

The original "Witch Mountain" movies are hit and miss, but still a joy

TALENT
Director: John Hough  

Cast: Ike Eisenmann, Kim Richards, Eddie Albert, Christopher Lee, Betty Davis

FEATURES
"Making of," commentary, and more

RATING
G

DVD
Picture: Very Good
Sound: Good

GEEK OUT
Before the big visual effects version of "Witch Mountain," Disney's visual effects team made RVs fly

TECH SPECS
Aspect Ratio (1.75:1)

Dolby Digital 5.1

DVD RELEASE DATE
March 10, 2009
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