The 1960s and 1970s were great times for Disney live-action films. Before Kurt Russell became Snake Plissken and Jack Burton, he was Dexter Riley, the computer who wore tennis shoes and then later the world’s strongest man. Hayley Mills won our hearts as Pollyanna and then again as twins setting a diabolical parent trap. Jodie Foster switched bodies with Barbara Harris for the freakiest Friday ever, and then she cracked the mystery of Candleshoe. Shaggy Dogs, Flubber, all of these getting my generation off the streets and into movie theaters for laughs and light-weight science fiction and fantasy. Now our children can witness this phenomenon on Disney+.
Among this group are two films featuring alien siblings, Tia (Kim Richards) and Tony (Ike Eisenmann), who each possess strange psychic powers but lack any memories about their backgrounds. Escape from Witch Mountain (1975) is the first of these two films. We meet the twins after their adoptive parents, the Malones, have died and they are brought to an orphanage. Tia has visions about crashing in an ocean. Later, we learn that the crash involved the spaceship that brought their people to Earth.
After Tia uses her powers of prophecy to save an attorney named Deranian (Donald Pleasence) from a car wreck, she and Tony come under the attention of Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland), Deranian’s boss who is obsessed with obtaining wealth. Indeed, when we meet him, Bolt’s consulting with his astrologer, his psychic, and his guru about the stock market. He’s got to have those sibs! And he gets them!
Tia has a map hidden in a star-adorned case that leads to Witch Mountain, so she and Tony escape not knowing why the place is so important. The chase ensues! The kids meet Jack O’Day (Eddie Albert), a sour gentleman traveling the USA in his Winnebago. We, of course, reach the inevitable happy Disney ending, the kids meet their Uncle Bene (Denver Pyle), and so much for Aristotle Bolt and his dreams of McDuck level wads of lucre. Tia and Tony fly off in Bene’s flying saucer to wherever their people have set up an Earth colony.
Escape from Witch Mountain touches on several themes popular during the 1970s – UFOs, psychic powers, and alien visitations. I was ten-years old upon seeing it for the first time, and I remember just loving the easy-to-follow adventure and the antics Tia and Tony pulled off with their abilities. As an adult re-watching it to write this article, I focused on the cast, how Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards did not achieve later success like Kurt Russell or Jodie Foster. Eisenmann decided to keep it lowkey by running a voice-acting agency before retiring into a writer’s life, while Richards now is Paris Hilton’s aunt and on the reality show Housewives of Beverly Hills. Disney always had a way of including legends from Hollywood too, like, well, Donald Pleasence. And how far had Ray Milland come from playing Don Birnham in The Lost Weekend (1945), Tony Wendice in Dial M for Murder (1954), or Stanford White in The Girl on the Red Velvet Swing (1955)? All the way to Aristotle Bolt, it seems.
That “film greats playing Disney villains” trend continues with the sequel, Return from Witch Mountain (1978) where the tweens from space tangle with wicked scientist Victor Gannon (Christopher Lee) and greedy broke socialite Letha Wedge (Bette Davis). And that name: Letha Wedge! Aristotle Bolt and now Letha Wedge! Maybe not quite over-the-top cool like Cruella de Vil or Maleficent, but not too shabby. If someone were to comment about Ms. Davis’s apparent downward trajectory, that she took such a role, I can only imagine her answering while waving her cigarette furiously: “At least I’m not Joan Crawford in fucking Trog!”
Return from Witch Mountain begins with Tia and Tony returning to spend time among city folks. Alien Rumspringa, perhaps? Uncle Bene drops them off inside the Rose Bowl, so Pasadena or at least Los Angeles is where the action occurs. Immediately, of course, our heroes run into trouble when Tony employs his telekinetic powers to save Sickle (Anthony James), Letha Wedge’s nephew and a guinea pig for Victor Gannon who has invented a device that takes over people’s minds. The villains see Tony stop Sickle from hitting the ground after he had fallen from a building. Both the baddies then get ideas very similar to the ones Aristotle Bolt had concocted before. Psychic tweens mean money and power! Wedge and Gannon kidnap Tony and subjugate his mind while Tina roams the city with a young street gang with, given their wimpy natures, the ironic nicknames “Dazzler,” “Rocky,” “Crusher,” and “Muscles.” The plot includes a foiled gold-bullion robbery, rival youth gangs, and eventually the usual happy ending with Wedge and Gannon left despairing when Uncle Bene picks up Tony and Tia, and off they go into the sky saucer-style once again.
I could discuss the made-for-television remakes, but instead let’s skip ahead to 2009 when Disney released Race to Witch Mountain, a quite different and updated retelling starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who plays Jack Bruno, a down-and-out Las Vegas cab driver who once drove for a local organized crime boss. The brother and sister are now Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sarah (AnnaSophia Robb), here to find the solution their parents devised to save their ecologically doomed world. Their planet’s leaders want to invade Earth, but the majority want the ecological solution instead. Disgraced astrophysicist Alex Friedman (Carla Gugino) joins to help the pair reach Witch Mountain where a shady government organization led by Agent Burke (Ciarán Hinds) had taken their ship after Seth and Sarah crashed it. Finally, Garry Marshall plays a leading ufologist. How can you go wrong with that?
Alien assassins, government conspiracies, even more intense powers for Seth and Sarah — Seth can control his density, for example – and a UFO convention complete with Whitley Strieber making a cameo add panache to the story. Not surprising, then, to learn that Andy Fickman, the director, was born in Roswell, New Mexico. When interviewed by Martin A. Grove for The Hollywood Reporter, Fickman offered the following:
Asked about his connection to the material thanks to his Roswell roots, Fickman laughed: “It finally pays off! Finally! I should thank my parents for that. I was born in Roswell and, certainly, it’s one of those classic questions your whole life. If someone asks where you were born and you say, ‘Roswell, New Mexico,’ it immediately is met with, sort of, ‘Oh, you’re an alien.’ I had just got back from China where Dwayne and I were doing press (for ‘Race’) and every journalist there from all over Asia knew what Roswell was. I found it so interesting that globally it’s probably one of few cities that you could just say (the name) and immediately everybody has an image in their mind of UFOs and crashes and aliens. So it’s definitely been a part of me for a long time.”
Did it help him in handling this material? “Well, I think to a certain degree it helped in that I’ve had a lifelong fascination with UFOs,” he replied, “and because of that I think I probably came into the movie very much a fan and already (had) my own decades worth of research leading up to it. I (didn’t need) to immerse myself in the world of UFOs. It was kind of the opposite, which was, ‘I’m so immersed in the world of UFOs I think I now need to make sure I immerse our producers and our cast and our executives and our crew to catch them up to where my head space is.’”
Even Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann received small parts, hopefully sparking nostalgia for many members of my generation, not just me. Disney+ has all three movies available. What a fun triple-header – a little popcorn, and cocktails or soda, and you’re good to go. You may even notice certain connections. Tiger Joe Marsh, an actor and wrestler active during the mid-twentieth century, plays Lorko, Bolt’s gate guard in Escape from Witch Mountain. Dwayne Johnson, a famous actor/wrestler active now, tops the Race to Witch Mountain cast list. Wrestlers . . . hmmm. Then Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann come back for the remake . . . and Whitley Strieber’s appearance anywhere screams hidden dealings. Coincidence? Perhaps . . . or do they want you think it’s all a coincidence? Wheels within wheels. Are you paying attention?