After the mammoth box office flumping of Disney’s John Carter one cannot help but recall the studios earlier live action pictures from the 1970s and how different they were in comparison to the behemoths of today. Instead of John Carter and Pirates Of The Caribbean we had dainty little efforts like The Cat From Outer Space, The World’s Strongest Man and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. All low-key, low budget and sentimental flicks that whilst seemingly small scale when compared with Disney’s feature animations of the era, they retained that heart warming essence synonymous with the cartoon mouse house output.
One film that stood out in memory from childhood was Return From Witch Mountain, the sequel to Escape To Witch Mountain, and after watching it again for the first time in nearly twenty years I am happy to say it was just as enjoyable as I remembered, which is not always the case when revisiting long lost childhood favourites (I’m looking at you Mac and Me).
It is a light, well paced but dated sci-fi adventure flawed in places but so charming one can’t help but overlook the fuzzy visuals and average performances for the feel good factor evoked by the pantomime villain pairing of Christopher Lee and Bette Davis. The fantastically warbling score, bleeding 50’s style sci-fi music with 70s disco and a well paced screenplay evoking the hack B movie innocence of golden age cinema yet seemed pertinent of the time. Maybe these type of films faded into insignificance after the Star Wars colossus changed the way films were made forever with its repercussions evident in the monster blockbusters that grace our cinema screens every summer.
In Return to Witch Mountain Tia and Tony, the telekinetic child aliens from the first film, return to earth for a holiday only to find themselves caught up in an experimental mind-control plot masterminded by the charismatic yet completely evil Christopher Lee and his money hungry partner Bette Davis. After inadvertently witnessing a display of Tony’s powers, Lee kidnaps the boy in hope of taking control of his mind and using his gift to steal plutonium and take over the world, whilst Bette Davis simply wants to exploit the kid in Vegas. Meanwhile, after joining forces with a local child street gang, Tony’s sister Tia sets out on a quest to rescue her brother and return to their home planet.
RTWM is a simple tale but moves along at a decent pace and doesn’t feel weighted down by shoe-horned action set pieces or bloated special effects. Instead it focuses on the characters and relationships between them which serve as the fundamental heart of what made Disney films so special at the time. Even the spectacularly successful Pirates Of The Caribbean series which, whilst accomplished in terms of execution, effects and narrative, are somewhat lacking in the heart department. It is very difficult to inject a big budget studio box office film with sentimentality without making it curdle or severing a section of its target audience in it for the action and adventure. But if the quaint, graceful Disney films of the 70s can evoke such feelings without having to rely on CGI set pieces to move the story forward then surely they can be accomplished today in times when honesty and empathy in cinema should be given screen time over bloated irrational dross like Transformers: Dark of the Moon.