Disney remake comes up short

In the overlooked Disney film from 1975, Escape to Witch Mountain, a pair of imperiled orphans are rescued by Eddie Albert. In the new Race to Witch Mountain, the kids on the run are aided by Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. The Rock.

So this loosely linked remake has at least supersized the hero. In most other regards, Race to Witch Mountain is a diminishment of the original.

The film doesn't really have a plot. It's more of a premise, cartoonishly executed.

A spaceship crashes in the Nevada desert, discharging Sara and Seth (AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig), two eerie, very blond, anthropomorphic teen aliens.

They randomly recruit Jack Bruno (Johnson), a reformed felon now driving a cab in Las Vegas, to transport them on an urgent mission, the significance of which is . . . well, if it were important I'm sure it would have been explained.

Communication is initially stilted. ("The vehicles behind us are indicating a pattern of pursuit," drones Sara.) But Jack quickly comes to love these kooky little extraterrestrials.

The "race" in the title is apt since the movie is one long chase with Jack and his pale faces, conveniently joined by an astrophysicist (Carla Gugino), on the lam from a grim government operative (Ciaran Hinds) and a fully armored space assassin who looks like the Predator without the dreds.

Also in the lumpy mix are Cheech Marin as a mechanic and Garry Marshall as the world's first Borscht Belt conspiracy theorist.

Kim Richards and Iake Eissimann, who played the orphans Tina and Tony in the original film and its 1978 sequel, Return From Witch Mountain, also have cameos (although back in the day, the young actor went by the Anglicized name Ike Eisenmann).

Curiously, despite Johnson's imposing physique, it's the kids who do most of the smashing and grabbing, right up until the climax, when it's all-hands-on-neck. The big guy is there mostly to provide the punchlines. ("Don't go in the pimped-out refrigerator, Jack," he warns himself, standing in front of a disguised portal.)

He certainly wasn't recruited for his romantic flair. He and Gugino have all the chemistry of oil and water.

There's an extended gag about the flaky attendees at a UFO convention, which seems both anemic and stale, especially considering that the film's director, Andy Fickman, is a native of Roswell, N.M.

The action sequences are murky and the special effects passable at best. Fickman should consider giving Spielberg residuals because he throws in a little E.T. and a whole lot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

But the result resembles a breezy episode of Power Rangers.

That may sit just fine with young moviegoers, but the lobby is likely to be full of parents working cell phones, returning urgent calls, the significance of which are, well. . . .

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com.

Race to Witch Mountain

Directed by Andy Fickman. With Billy Brown, Christopher Marquette, Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Kim Richards, Carla Gugino, Garry Marshall, Tom Everett Scott, Alexander Ludwig, Ciaran Hinds. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.

Running time: 1 hours, 39 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for sequences of action and violence, frightening and dangerous situations, and some thematic elements).