Sunday 21 September 2008

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

It's always a little strange watching the opening credits to live action Disney movies. This one, like all the others, stars a bunch of adults (Eddie Albert, Ray Milland, Donald Pleasence) but is all about a couple of kids (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards). They're Tony and Tia Malone, orphans whose adopted parents have died, and so they're taken to the Pine Woods orphanage along with their cat, Winky. They're also blessed with a multitude of psychic powers: clairvoyance, remote viewing, telepathy, telekinesis, you name it. That all makes them really good at a lot of things but what they're not very good at is hiding it.

They show their hand at the orphanage on day one, putting them at the top of the enemy list of Truck, the orphanage bully. Also, after watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on an orphanage trip, they save the life of a man about to get into a limo. Tia knows that something bad would happen if he got in, and sure enough as soon as he takes a walk instead a truck ploughs into the side of the limo. Unfortunately for them the man is played by Donald Pleasence, so you know something's going to come of it. He's Lucas Deranian and he works for Aristotle Bolt. Next thing you know he's providing the orphanage with forged papers to prove that he's their uncle and he's taking custody.

Bolt is a rich and powerful man, the sort whose only goal in life is to become more rich and more powerful. He's a one dimensional character for sure, but he's blustery and fun to watch in the hands of Ray Milland. With this attitude and with the fact that Milland got rather bloated as the years went on, he reminds me of the head alien in Bad Taste. Needless to say, given the title, the children escape and while being chased by Bolt and Deranian, they try to find their heritage: who they are, where they come from, why they are the way they are and how they can get back to Stony Creek and Misty Valley, which are named on a little map they discover inside Tia's star case.

In many ways this is a typical Disney live action movie, but it's different too and 'different' is the key word. This has a lot to say about being different. Tony and Tia are very much the lead characters here that we're supposed to sympathise with, but they're not even human. There are many other film characters like these, but they're rarely sympathetic. Even when they are, like say, the title character in Carrie, the focus is very different: everyone hates the freak and the freak gets revenge. Here the freaks are even more freakish because of the variety of powers they have, but their powers make them desirable rather than reviled.

Really this is a film about humanity that uses aliens to highlight that humanity. It reminded me of Zenna Henderson's People stories, just Disneyfied rather than merely gentle and telling. Eddie Albert's character, Jason O'Day, regains the humanity that he had cast away with the death of his wife. I also like the humour, which is a lot more subtle than I'm used to seeing in Disney family movies. A great example comes shortly after the kids arrive at Xanthus, the Bolt estate, and ask if there are any neighbours. They look out of the window and are told: 'Everything you can see is owned by Mr Bolt.' Tia's answer is simply, 'I can see the sky', which says so much: it's true, funny and very telling given what we come to discover both about Bolt's character and who Tia is.

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