DVD Review: Escape to Witch Mountain (1975); Return to Witch Mountain (1978) -- Special Edition Discs

The Disney Classics Return
On Special Edition DVDs

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Over the years when I've been asked by other people just why and how I know so much about film, the reply I cite the most often comes from 1998’s overlooked gem of an ensemble film--Playing by Heart-- wherein Ryan Phillippe’s character tells Angelina Jolie, “I have an endless capacity for useless information.”

Yet this being said--I'm always amazed whether in regular conversation or in some terrific reader e-mails when I am asked about movies about which I am largely unfamiliar and/or of which I have never heard.

When I received an e-mail announcing the brand-new special edition DVDs from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment of Escape to Witch Mountain and Return From Witch Mountain to debut just three days before Walt Disney’s big screen launch of Race to Witch Mountain (that would continue the 30-year-old franchise), I was convinced that I remembered the earlier films.

Part of my confusion derived from reading the press release far too quickly, seeing the names Bette Davis, director John Hough, and the genre of science fiction/fantasy and instinctively recalling the terror I faced by watching the other movie involving the aforementioned contents—namely Watcher in the Woods. So upon the arrival of these two beautifully packaged silver boxed DVDs, it only took a few moments to realize that despite my “endless capacity for useless information,” I had never seen the Witch Mountain saga.

An eager and devoted fan of all things Walt Disney, I couldn't wait to dive into the original Escape to Witch Mountain which first premiered in theaters in 1975. Although I must grant you that some of the special effects seem a bit dated, the movie-- which was based upon the young adult novel by Alexander Key-- actually holds up surprisingly well even by today's standards.

Pretty typical for the genre and studio's love of precocious children, we’re introduced to our young heroes who have been dealt a tough lot in life and forced to become independent and look after themselves in the vein of Charles Dickens and ultimately JK Rowling’s Harry Potter as we're faced with the adorable Tia and Tony (played by Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards).

The young actors who look so much alike that as Eisenmann notes in a DVD extra even as a child he thought that the studio would have to pick them because they seemed as though they could be brother and sister take on their challenging and highly coveted roles (including Richards’ whose Tia was initially tested by the young Freaky Friday star Jodie Foster who passed in favor of another project). Today, Witch is is still considered one of Disney's overlooked 70s science fiction classics.

Upon their initial arrival at an orphanage in the start of the movie, we-- as well as the kids-- realize that they are not ordinary youngsters. With zero recollection of whom they are and where they've come from—Tony and Tia’s peculiarly effortless skill in communicating with one another and moving solid objects solely with their minds among other paranormal gifts quickly call attention to themselves.

While first it’s just the other orphans who give the siblings a rough time, soon they garner the interest of a more dangerous threat in the form of two older schemers who conspire to usurp and exploit the children’s penchant for clairvoyance and extrasensory perception to increase their power in the world.

Forging documents to pose as their long lost uncle, the wealthy Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland) and his nefarious sidekick Lucas Deranian (Donald Pleasance) bring the children into their care, luring them with rooms full of toys, without the kids’ knowledge that they’re watching their every move on the endless hidden cameras placed throughout their home.

However when the kids ascertain that the men are not whom they seem to be and find their suspicions confirmed, they flee the premises with only the vaguest idea of where to go after finding a map that should lead them to Witch Mountain as well as Tia’s startling flashes of who they are and where perhaps they had come from.

Fortunately and of course-- despite his reluctance to get involved initially-- the kids win over the lonely RV driving eccentric delightfully played by Eddie Albert who assists the kids on their journey. And predictably, given the title, we're led down the path of thinking that the kids have witch-like powers but by the 70s it was far more in vogue to go the full science fiction route and the film makes the most out of Disney's special effects department in some fun scenes as the kids combat those who get in their way.

However, by ultimately slapping on a flying saucer ending that weakens the work, it lessens its strength and slows down the momentum that had been building throughout. Aside from what I can only describe a perilously weak conclusion, the premise is terrific and the cast are all first-rate, elevating it to the level of forgotten Disney Family Classic.

And it's still something of a phenomenal cult-classic as Richards notes that hardly a day goes by when the beautiful blonde—now with young children of her own—isn’t asked whether or not she was Tia in the Witch Mountain movies. And in this deluxe treatment which boasts some new extras that weren’t included in the previous special edition takes the roughly ninety minute movie and rolls out the red carpet as though it were last week's other high profile Disney release, Pinocchio.

It includes a nearly half hour and highly entertaining, nostalgic making-of-featurette where Richards, Eisenmann, and Hough (who also includes a feature length commentary) recall life as part of the Disney family in the ‘70s. And the DVD also contains mini-featurettes on Disney Sci-Fi, Disney Effects, a 1975 Studio Album, and an intimate “Conversation With John Hough,” as well as the animated short “Pluto’s Dream House,” along with boasting all new optional pop-up fun facts to heighten the viewing experience for devotees.

While the picture and sound quality are just as first rate on the film’s sequel—1978’s Return From Witch Mountain-- unfortunately and despite upping the ante by serving up the first rate talents of Bette Davis and Christopher Lee, you’ll want to take a cue from the original work’s title and go back to enjoy the Escape once more instead of this messy Return.

Perhaps even foreshadowing the disappointment most would inevitably face with the movie, filmmaker John Hough notes in the DVD’s roughly twenty three minute “making-of-documentary" that he had no input in the script and while he acknowledges it was a fun one to shoot, he essentially looks at it as though screenwriter Malcolm Marmorstein (replacing Escape’s scripter Robert M. Young) derived the plot from popular formulaic paradigms and tried to make it sillier.

And sillier it is, right off the bat as the kids land right smack dab in the Rose Bowl for a brief vacation back on Earth and over the course of the next few minutes, they proceed to break the cardinal filmmaking rule of “show don’t tell,” by ignoring the mystery and haunting vague sense that heightened the opening hour of the series’ first movies by instead just talking directly to the audience in a “here’s what you need to know,” unrealistic segment.

Again deviating from the success of the first film which always was strengthened by the bond of the two children, in Return From Witch Mountain and-- aside from the brief, horrid introduction and its showdown, over-the-top finale that will make you wish for Escape’s flying saucer—Tony and Tia barely appear in the same frame.

This time around, it’s Tony that gets to have the most fun, sharing a majority of his screen time with the extremely campy villains personified by Christopher Lee and Bette Davis who—upon discovering his ability to move things with his mind and save their third henchman from certain death—quickly abduct the boy, remove his ability to have free will with a Lee Fu Manchu-worthy invention and employ him in a ridiculous crime.

Meanwhile, Tia is saddled with once again being primarily the only girl in the piece but in Return, she joins forces with what can only be described as a group of cardboard cut-out ragamuffins with silly monikers who dub themselves a gang. And while always trying to help them avoid the truancy officer played by Jack Soo (in an Asian stereotype role which was tragically the last filmed performance before his death), Tia and the boys try to rescue her brother from this new group of wicked villains.

Of course, and no offense to Mr. Milland and Mr. Pleasance who were great in the original—Return is only memorable for letting Christopher Lee and Bette Davis cut loose in the type of terrifying roles they always loved to play but sadly, the rest of the movie is so darn near unwatchable that it takes the originality of the first one and drains it all into a weird, ineffective hodgepodge of bad B-movie plots.

Again, it’s given the brand new bonus of Pop-Up Fun Facts to liven up the film that desperately needs the boost and the making-of featurette along with extras that match those of the first disc, but manage to unearth a “Lost Treasures: Christipher Lee, The Lost Interview” extra along with the animated Disney short “The Eyes Have It” that matches the movie’s theme.

And while it’s a nice companion piece to the first one and worth a rental if you want to recall your youth with Disney—it doesn’t have possess the same originality factor of the first one and for a better pairing of Bette Davis and director John Hough, be sure to catch Watcher in the Woods which is the film I’d originally mistaken these with in my overly-utilized brain which consists of endless and “useless information.”