Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Live-action edition. Escape to Witch Mountain

 

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. We have done all of the animated films, and we have moved on to the live-action films. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Escape to Witch Mountain

Year: 1975

Source materials : Adapted from the 1968 science fiction novel of the same name written by Alexander H. Key.

Box office: $20,000,000

Plot: Siblings Tony and Tia are placed in an orphanage, where they face difficulties stemming from their strange psychic/psionic abilities: Tony can psychokinetically move and control inanimate objects with the aid of his harmonica, while Tia can communicate telepathically to Tony, commune empathically with animals, and experience premonitions. Tia also possesses minor telekinetic abilities. She carries a “star case” with her at all times, which eventually reveals a strange map. Tia has fragmented memories of her early childhood, including an accident at sea and a man she later remembers as the children’s Uncle Bené, whom they believe drowned during their rescue.

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During a field trip to see a movie, 1 Tia experiences a premonition and warns attorney Lucas Deranian against a potentially dangerous accident. Deranian informs his employer, millionaire Aristotle Bolt, of the children’s unique abilities. Bolt, obsessed with the paranormal, demands that Deranian retrieve the children at all costs. Deranian’s detective work leads him to the orphanage, where he poses as Tia and Tony’s uncle, and takes them to Bolt’s mansion.

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Though initially suspicious of Bolt’s motives, Tia and Tony are lured in by the wealthy trappings of Bolt’s home. Bolt eventually reveals that he has been monitoring the children via a closed-circuit television system and that he and Deranian are fully aware of their unusually strong powers. The night of this revelation, Tia and Tony make an escape, using their abilities to psionically control a wild mustang, guard dogs, and the security fence, as well as using Winkie, Tia’s cat, to make the allergic security guard let them pass.

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Bolt sends Deranian and a thug, Ubermann, after the children. Tia and Tony hide out in a green-and-white Winnebago motor home owned by a crotchety widower named Jason O’Day. Initially negative toward the children, Jason gradually begins to recognize their powers and the truth of their story; Tia’s vague memories of a disaster at sea intrigue him. He agrees to take the children on the route indicated by Tia’s star case, which leads them to a mountain known as Witch Mountain, home to unexplainable phenomena. Avoiding Bolt, the law, and an incited mob convinced the children are witches, they eventually make their way up Witch Mountain, pursued by Deranian and Ubermann, as well as by Bolt in a helicopter.

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As their memories begin to fully return, the children realize their accident at sea did not involve a boat but a spacecraft. Tony and Tia are actually of extraterrestrial origin; the double star emblem on the star case stands for a binary star system where their home planet was located. Having come to Earth because their own planet was dying, survivors of the journey made their way to Witch Mountain and formed a community to await the surviving children, each pair in possession of a star case to help them find their way to their new home.

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Tony and Tia are the first to reach their destination. The children are reunited with their Uncle Bené 2 and board another spacecraft. When Bolt and the others leave in defeat, Jason witnesses the spaceship’s return as it flies over him to say a final goodbye.

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Changes from the Source Material: In the book, the children are befriended by Father O’Day, an athletic, young Catholic priest, rather than crusty widower Jason O’Day. The children’s ship is shot down, rather than crashed, and the children are olive-skinned, though with light-colored hair, rather than fair-skinned and blond. In the book, Deranian is the main antagonist, and he is working for a shadowy European cabal who are trying to capture the children for their special powers, instead of for Aristotle Bolt. The novel is set along or near the Atlantic coast of the United States, whereas the film was shot along the Pacific coast in California.

Cast: Reta Shaw returns as Mrs. Grindley

Eddie Albert as Jason O’Day. He starred as Oliver Wendell Douglas in the 1960s television sitcom Green Acres and as Frank MacBride in the 1970s crime drama Switch. He also had a recurring role as Carlton Travi He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1954 for his performance in Roman Holiday, and in 1973 for The Heartbreak Kid. Other films include The Longest Yard, Oklahoma, The Longest Day and Tea House of the August Moon. Ray Milland as Aristotle Bolt. He won a Oscar for The Lost Weekend. He was known for roles in Dial M for Murder, Reap the Wind, Love Story, The Major and the Minor, The Big Clock, and The Thief.

Donald Pleasence as Lucas Deranian. His best known film roles include psychiatrist Dr. Samuel Loomis in Halloween and four of its sequels, the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, RAF Flight Lieutenant Colin Blythe in The Great Escape, SEN 5241 in THX 1138, Clarence “Doc” Tydon in Wake in Fright, and the President of the United States in Escape from New York. Denver Pyle as Uncle Bené. He is best known for playing Uncle Jesse in The Dukes of Hazard and Mad Jack in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams. Films include Pony Express, The Man from Blackhawk, Tombstone Territory, The Horse Soldiers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and The Alamo.

Kim Richards 3 as Tia Malone. As a child she appeared on theseries Nanny and the Professor. Other film and television appearances include No Deposit, No Return, Assault on Precinct 13, Hello, Larry Emergency!, Diff’rent Strokes, Alice, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, CHiPs, Magnum, P.I., James at 16, The Dukes of Hazzard, The Rockford Files, Little House on the Prairie and Black Snake Moan. In 2010, Richards began appearing as a regular cast member of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, alongside her sister Kyle. Ike Eisenmann as Tony Malone. He is probably best known as cadet Peter Preston in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Eisenmann starred in the NBC TV series The Fantastic Journey, and made appearances in other series including CHiPs, T. J. Hooker, The Jeffersons, Wonder Woman, Kung Fu, Mannix, Little House on the Prairie, and several episodes of Gunsmoke.

Critical Reception:

  • Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times was positive, calling it “a scifi thriller that’s fun, that’s cheerfully implausible, that’s scary but not too scary, and it works.”
  • Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three stars out of four, calling it “a solid adventure for the under-12 set. That might sound like a back-handed compliment, but compared to other recent Disney live-action features, ‘Witch Mountain’ is something special. Only rarely is it juvenile.”
  • Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, “It’s not very scary, but neither is it very exciting.”
  • Tom Shales of The Washington Post noted that the film “gives children plenty of what they want from a movie—and that includes, conspicuously, repeated instances of kids making adults look like monkeys.”
  • Geoff Brown was negative, writing that despite “a strong story line … the Disney team seem content to fritter it away with silly comedy and footling displays of magic.”

Sequels and reboots:

  • Return from Witch Mountain (1978) The sequel features Bette Davis and Christopher Lee attempting to kidnap the children.
  • Beyond Witch Mountain (1982)was produced as a television movie and broadcast on CBS through Walt Disney, which serves as the third and final film in the series.
  • Escape to Witch Mountain (1995) was remade television movie, with a different cast and several details changed or omitted, and released as part of The Wonderful World of Disney.
  • The Blair Witch Mountain Project (2002) was developed as a parody of the 1999 film The Blair Witch Project. The film is directed by Ike Eisenmann, who also reprises his role as Tony alongside Kim Richards as Tia. The film follows intrepid journalist Blair Billingsley, portrayed by Hope Levy, as she tries to track down Tia and Tony, now adults.
  • Race to Witch Mountain (2009) Reboot starring Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, and Ciarán Hinds.

My take: After seeing this movie as a kid I wanted to drive around the country in a Winnebago.

Next Week: The Apple Dumpling Gang