Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Escape To Witch Mountain
More often than not, directors tend to receive the lion’s share of praise (or, if the movie’s lousy, blame) for a film’s success or failure. I’d argue that in some cases, they receive too much credit. But that’s not the case when it comes to live-action Disney movies of the 1960s and 70s. Disney employed several directors during this period, including Robert Stevenson, Robert Butler and the McEveety brothers. A lot of these guys came from television and the Disney House Style reflected that. I don’t think it’s necessarily fair or accurate to say they were interchangeable. For instance, Stevenson excelled with visual effects and Butler was most at home with comedies. But there’s a reason why none of them get a possessive “A Film By” credit. Disney didn’t hire auteurs. The movies are first and foremost Walt Disney Productions, even after Walt’s death.
John Hough was also a TV guy but he’d come up through the ranks of British television, not American. He’d been a second unit director at ITC for years before making his debut with an episode of The Avengers. From there, he moved to horror and suspense films, making pictures like Eyewitness, Twins Of Evil for Hammer Films, and the highly recommended The Legend Of Hell House. But he wasn’t a stranger to family films. In 1972, he directed an international production of Treasure Island starring Orson Welles as Long John Silver that Welles himself had hoped to direct at one point.
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In a 2017 interview with Film Talk, Hough says he left the UK with the dream of working for Disney. But first he made the 1974 Peter Fonda movie Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. That movie made a whole lot of money on a relatively limited budget. Around this same time, Disney was developing a project with some horror, sci-fi and action elements that would, like most of their live-action films, be produced on a relatively limited budget. It was a good time for John Hough to join the team.
Escape To Witch Mountain was a young adult novel (or, as I believe they were called back then, juvenile fiction) by Alexander Key first published in 1968. Disney picked up the rights fairly quickly. Executive producer Ron Miller assigned the project to producer Jerome Courtland, the former actor who’d recently made his feature directorial debut with Run, Cougar, Run. The screenplay was by Robert Malcolm Young, a writer with no other Disney credits but a veteran of such TV shows as Night Gallery and The F.B.I.
Even if the movie had absolutely nothing else going for it, you have to admit that Escape To Witch Mountain is a great, great title. As a kid, I was super-excited to see it. Witch Mountain sounds like a forbidding, spooky place. I could imagine it towering over Sleepy Hollow. So why on earth would anyone want to escape TO it? Whatever’s going on here must be pretty insane to make Witch Mountain seem like a place of refuge.
You can tell Disney is going for something different with this movie from its opening seconds. The title credits play out against photo-negative footage of our young heroes being pursued by a pack of angry animated dogs. IMDb credits a whole bunch of animation heavy hitters with these credits, including Don Bluth, Peanuts producer Bill Melendez and the great Chuck Jones. Except for Bluth, who was a Disney employee at the time, this strikes me as unlikely. Both Melendez and Jones had worked for Disney in the past, albeit briefly in Jones’ case, but they’d moved beyond incidental work like this. The animation itself is simplistic (it’s basically the same thing repeated over and over) but effective. Regardless of who produced it, it’s a cool little sequence that sets the tone for what’s to come.
The urgent, atmospheric music is by Johnny Mandel, another example of Disney opening their doors to established and in-demand composers. Mandel had won an Oscar in 1966 for cowriting the song “The Shadow Of Your Smile” for the movie The Sandpiper. At the time of Escape To Witch Mountain, his music was heard every week as the theme to the hit TV show M*A*S*H. Mandel was always more of a jazz arranger and musician than a film composer but he was prolific enough that we’ll hear his work again.
The movie wastes no time introducing us to siblings Tia and Tony as they arrive at the Pine Woods Orphanage after the untimely deaths of their foster parents. Tony is played by Ike Eisenmann while Tia is Kim Richards. We’ll get into their later careers in another column but at this point, both had appeared and would continue to show up in a few episodes of The Wonderful World Of Disney.
Tia and Tony are welcomed by the warm and maternal Mrs. Grindley (Reta Shaw from Mary Poppins in her final role before her retirement and subsequent death in 1982 at the age of 69). Mrs. Grindley’s Pine Woods is one of the most pleasant orphanages in popular culture. Tia and Tony get their own room, the kids play games and have an impressive library at their disposal and even get to take field trips to see Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs. I’d move in there tomorrow if I could.
The only dark cloud at Pine Woods is a bully named Truck. Dermott Downs plays Truck, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it was red-headed scamp Johnny Whitaker. We’ll see Downs again but he also eventually switched careers, becoming a cinematographer and later a director, notably on Arrowverse shows like The Flash and DC’s Legends Of Tomorrow. Truck causes problems from the get-go and causes Tony to reveal his paranormal abilities when a fight breaks out at a softball game.
Hough doesn’t bother hiding the kids’ powers. It’s revealed very early on that Tia has psychic abilities and can communicate with her brother telepathically. Tony is telekinetic, able to move objects (and himself) with his mind. Sometimes he needs to play a harmonica to direct things but small things, like shoving a baseball mitt in Truck’s face, can be accomplished on his own.
Tia has also begun to be haunted by flashes of a traumatic memory she’s blocked out. Every so often, she’ll remember bits and pieces of her and Tony with their parents, nearly drowning after a crash of some kind. She also doesn’t understand the significance of the little star case she carries everywhere. When Truck takes the star case from her and damages it, it reveals a map. But instead of making things clearer, the map just deepens the mystery of who the kids are and where they came from.
During their trip to the movies, Tia spots a well-dressed businessman getting into a car. Her psychic gift tells her that something terrible is going to happen to that car and she rushes over to warn the gentleman, Mr. Deranian (Donald Pleasence, whose only other Disney credit, the 1985 Disney Channel movie Black Arrow, reunited him with director John Hough). Deranian tells his driver that he’s decided to walk instead. Seconds later, an out-of-control tow truck careens off the street and crashes into Deranian’s car.
Deranian immediately reports what happened to his employer, wealthy industrialist Aristotle Bolt (Ray Milland in his one Disney appearance). Bolt has spent years searching for evidence of the paranormal and the occult. With Deranian convinced that Tia is the real deal, Bolt orders him to bring the children to him by any means necessary.
Since Bolt has money and this is still a Disney movie, Deranian doesn’t need to resort to anything as crass as kidnapping. Instead, Deranian forges a bunch of documents proving that he is Tia and Tony’s long-lost Uncle Lucas. The kids are understandably skeptical that this creepy Englishman they met once on a street corner is related to them. But Mrs. Grindley finds everything to be in order and has no choice but to release them (and their new cat friend, Winky) to Uncle Lucas’ care.
Deranian takes them to Bolt’s estate, Xanthus, a place Tony recently saw while relaxing with a little automatic drawing. Bolt welcomes them at the door with ice cream cones and shows them to their rooms, stocked with all the toys and goodies a kid could want. He’s also planned for their education, beginning with horseback riding lessons. It’s here Bolt gets the first taste of the kids’ abilities when Tia calmly approaches a wild, unbreakable stallion named Thunderhead and easily mounts him.
Everything seems great but Tia and Tony still can’t shake the feeling something’s wrong. Bolt eventually reveals his plans to exploit the kids’ powers to…well, get even richer. As evil schemes go, this one leaves a bit to be desired. But it’s enough to get the kids to make a run for it, escaping on Thunderhead as Bolt sics his dogs on them.
They make it to town and spot a potential getaway vehicle: a Winnebago parked in front of a general store. The owner is self-described crusty old man Jason O’Day (Eddie Albert, finally returning to the Disney fold for the first time since Miracle Of The White Stallions back in 1963). Jason plans to live out the rest of his days driving across America in his RV and drives off without realizing the kids and Winky are on board. He’s none too happy when he discovers them but offers to make them breakfast before abandoning them on the beach.
Over their meal, Tia and Tony explain what’s been happening. Jason is surprised to hear that these two little kids have an enemy as powerful as Aristotle Bolt. When Tia shows him the map in the star case, Jason recognizes the name Stony Creek and agrees to take them that far. He also gets a demonstration of their abilities when he loses his keys. Tony starts the Winnebago with his mind while Winky is sent out to retrieve the keys from the beach. But a taste of Tia’s psychic powers is a bit more painful. When Jason claims he was never married, she catches him in the lie, describing his late wife, their home, their deep love for each other and how Jason shut himself off from the world after her untimely death.
Meanwhile, Bolt calls in reinforcements by offering a hefty reward to anyone who locates the kids. This catches the ear of Stony Creek’s Sheriff Purdy (Walter Barnes). Purdy happens to be around when Jason pulls into town. Realizing a Winnebago isn’t the least conspicuous getaway vehicle, he decides they should split up and rendezvous a bit later at his brother’s place north of town. The kids are able to make it about six feet before Purdy picks them up and carts them down to jail.
Of course, a locked jail cell is no match for Tony’s telekinesis. They’re able to escape but in the process they scare Purdy so much that he becomes convinced they’re witches. Stony Creek is a town haunted by the unexplained phenomena that surrounds Witch Mountain. Before long, he’s riled up the town into an angry mob, which means that if Bolt and Deranian want these kids alive, they’ll need to find them first.
At this point, it should come as no surprise to see a live-action Disney movie culminate in a big chase. But for perhaps the first time, this isn’t a wacky chase. This one feels like it has some stakes. A lot of credit has to go to John Hough for elevating Disney’s chase game. Even Aristotle Bolt gets involved, pursuing the Winnebago in his personal helicopter. And that helicopter is actually there in the shot, not hovering far above the fray. It’s the most kinetic and exciting chase scene we’ve seen in this column so far.
Things do get a little silly as the chase gets nearer to Witch Mountain. Just as it seems Deranian has them boxed in, the Winnebago suddenly takes to the skies. Things get even sillier when Bolt realizes his helicopter is flying upside down. There were visual effects artists in 1975 who could pull this sequence off effectively but none of them were willing to work for Disney Dollars. As a result, the thrilling chase doesn’t have the powerhouse climax you’d like.
Tony isn’t strong enough to pull off the Flying Winnebago stunt himself. That little deus ex machina was the handiwork of their Uncle Bene (Denver Pyle). He flies them to safety and explains their families are members of an extraterrestrial race from a dying planet. The group became separated after their spacecraft crash-landed in the ocean. Uncle Bene gave Tia the star case so the kids would know how to find the others when they were old enough. The aliens bid farewell to Jason (and Winky, who becomes Jason’s traveling companion) and return to Witch Mountain and their search for other castaways.
Revisiting movies you enjoyed as a child can be dangerous. If you’re lucky, they were genuinely great films that you can continue to enjoy as an adult. If they’re considerably less than great, you run the risk of spoiling something you once loved and questioning your own childhood taste. For me, Escape To Witch Mountain falls between those two extremes. It is certainly not a genuinely great film. However, I can still watch it and enjoy it on a lot of levels.
Let’s first dispense with the bad. This is not an airtight script. I’ve never read Alexander Key’s novel and I understand the movie makes some changes. Whether or not the book does a better job avoiding certain plot holes, I don’t know. But in the movie, the ultimate realization that the star case really is just a map is a bit of a letdown. It seems like it ought to do something else considering it’s a piece of alien technology. And if Uncle Bene knew they were headed to Stony Creek and had time to draw a map and give it to Tia, why didn’t he just take them along in the first place? And what exactly does it mean that the kids would figure it out when they were old enough? Was it some sort of test and if they weren’t smart enough to find their own way back, the others didn’t really want them anymore? It certainly doesn’t appear that Uncle Bene or anybody else has lifted a finger trying to find them.
The good news is none of that matters much while you’re watching the movie. The cast helps a lot with most of the heavy lifting being done by the older actors. Eddie Albert is a reliably solid character actor and he strikes just the right balance between protective father figure and ornery old coot. Donald Pleasence brings gravitas and menace to a role that could easily have been reduced to a generic lackey. And Ray Milland turns Aristotle Bolt into a threatening bad guy, despite the fact that he generally treats the kids very well.
As for the kids themselves, Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann come across as standard Disney kid actors. They’re not bad, just unseasoned. In some ways, they’re kind of perfect. They’re a little stiff and a little awkward, which helps set them apart from the other kids at the orphanage. But they’re not so inhuman that you immediately peg them as aliens. Or maybe that’s just me trying to justify some wooden acting.
But it’s John Hough who elevates Escape To Witch Mountain to something special. This isn’t a horror movie but Hough shoots it like it is, favoring shadows and off-kilter angles. The action is a couple notches above what we’ve seen in previous live-action Disney films. Hough builds an engaging mystery around Tia and Tony, keeping things moving at a rapid enough clip that the audience is able to gloss over the story’s more implausible aspects.
Escape To Witch Mountain is particularly appealing to quiet, introverted, bookish kids, a group I most definitely belonged to. For us, it was fun to see a movie centered around kids who didn’t quite fit in and didn’t understand the reason why. Even if we didn’t have ESP, the idea that we might be extraterrestrials who could find a hidden refuge among others of our kind was extremely appealing. And if Eddie Albert, a spirited horse and a stray cat could help us get there, so much the better.
Disney released Escape To Witch Mountain on March 21, 1975. It received a handful of negative reviews but most critics liked it. Audiences did, too, turning the film into a respectable hit. Even today, it mostly holds up as an entertaining, fast-paced, sorta-spooky mystery adventure. It’s also genuinely refreshing to see a movie about kids with paranormal abilities that never once utters the word “super-hero”. This is one of the better live-action Disney movies of the 1970s and this column will be returning to Witch Mountain soon enough.
VERDICT: Disney Plus
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