Escape to Witch Mountain

Kids with psychic powers have become a bit of a theme on Mewsings, one that often goes hand in hand with kids-as-aliens (The Midwich Cuckoos), kids-plus-aliens (Chocky), kids-from-the-future (Sky), and kids-as-the-next-stage-in-human-evolution (The Tomorrow People). If nothing else, kids with psychic powers are often treated as aliens (or less than human, anyway) because of their differences (The Institute, Stranger Things, The Morrow books), and as a result their stories are often about a quest for a new home where they truly belong (The Chrysalids, Morrow) or at least an escape from the dehumanising situation where they’re being held (The Institute, Stranger Things).

I realised recently that my first encounter with the idea of psychic kids was probably Disney’s 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain. It’s an adaptation of Alexander Key’s 1968 novel of the same name, and was a fairly successful film at a time when, I’ve read, Disney was in a bit of a creative and commercial slump. Certainly, it’s fondly remembered, and coming out as it did a short while before Star Wars would have meant it was a science-fictional kids’ film on hand to feed a generation of suddenly science-fictionally hungry kids, which must have helped.

I’ve long thought of the kids-with-psychic-powers “boom” of the 70s and 80s as being driven by the youth-centred social revolutions of the late 60s, as the theme packs in so many hippie ideas, ideals, and preoccupations, from the (literal) empowerment of the young and the villainisation of the establishment, to a belief in dormant psychic powers, beneficent aliens, and the desire to escape from a materialistic society. The theme was around before then (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids was 1955, Zenna Henderson’s People stories were in magazines from 1952), but I think of it as being driven into the wider culture of films and TV thanks to creators inspired by, or at least touched by, those late-60s ideals.

I don’t really associate Disney with revolutionary ideas, though (the exceptions seem to be more about the fight against individual tyrants than criticising the socially-sanctioned tools tyrants use, such as King John’s exorbitant taxation in Robin Hood, or the Master Control Program’s restrictive security policies in Tron). And I don’t think either of the first two Witch Mountain films (Escape was followed by Return from Witch Mountain in 1978) have much in the way of social comment to make, and by the time of the 2009 reboot, Race to Witch Mountain, any elements that were once revolutionary (the fact that the government is the film’s main villain, for instance) had by then become so established as to be conventions rather than convictions. But they’re fun films, and still contain almost all of the elements of the other kids-with-psychic-powers stories I’ve mentioned.

This may make it look like Return from Witch Mountain is somewhat hauntological… It’s not.

Escape to Witch Mountain starts with siblings Tony and Tia (Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards) arriving at an orphanage after the death of their adoptive parents. Tony can move things with his mind (though he generally has to be playing the harmonica to do it), while Tia can communicate telepathically with Tony, and with animals, and has precognitive flashes. Although they have a conversation about the need to hide their powers so as not to be ostracised, they don’t make much of an attempt to do so. Confronted by a bully and surrounded by the other kids in the orphanage, Tony thinks nothing of blatantly using his powers to win the fight. And none of the kids (except the defeated bully) seems to care much. But the film isn’t really about the alienation of being different, it’s about how fun it would be to have special powers. The main villain, greedy millionaire Aristotle Bolt, wants to use Tia’s precognitive powers to increase his already excessive wealth, but it’s only towards the end of the film, when the kids’ flight has led them to more rural areas, where a hick sheriff and hunting-mad locals think that because the kids are headed for Witch Mountain they must be witches and can be shot rather than captured, that there’s any real sense of danger.

In the book, Tony and Tia are more evidently different. Both have light-coloured hair, olive skin, and dark blue eyes. Their story in the book is a bit more grim (the orphanage is run by a cynical matron, and the fight with the bully involves a home-made knife), the main villain isn’t a rich capitalist but a communist agent, and Tia can’t speak except telepathically to her brother and animals. They are helped first by a nun, then by a Catholic priest, Father O’Day (who is turned into widower-with-a-camper-van Jason O’Day in the film).

Tony and Tia’s powers seem to have no limits in the films. There’s none of the sense, as with Stranger Things’ Eleven’s nosebleeds, that using their powers takes something out of them, and by the second film Tony is using his telekinesis to keep multiple people and heavy objects flying in different orbits all at once, as well as lifting trains and trucks and a massive weight of gold, and can even perform technically demanding tasks such as meddling with electronic circuitry, or making a car window reflect enough sunlight to blind his pursuers.

Although released in 1975, Escape to Witch Mountain feels like an early 60s film. The kids are trusting of all adults, are sweetly innocent (left to themselves, they use their powers to put on a telekinesis-powered puppet show), and the perils are mild. There’s a reassuringly trustworthy adult to parent them through most of their journey. Return from Witch Mountain feels a bit more 70s, though largely in the surface details (the music — funky wah-wah’d guitar and rock flute — and the fashions — Tia’s very sharp, very red, short trouser suit — for instance), and the few touches of 70s grit are highly Disneyfied. (Tia, for instance, is helped not by a reassuring adult but a denim-clad street gang of kids, though they’re a gang who only think of themselves as tough and streetwise, while clearly being anything but, and are quick to realise that really they want to go to school.) Both films were directed by John Hough, who also directed Twins of Evil for Hammer (and in the second film he’s joined by Hammer actors Christopher Lee and Bette Davis as his villains).

Things have certainly changed by the time of the 2009 remake of Return, Race to Witch Mountain. The idea of alien visitors with psychic powers has picked up too much cultural baggage, and this is very much a post-X-Files, post-Close Encounters film, with hazmat suits, media interest, plenty of references to conspiracy culture, and a Terminator-style alien robot assassin to make up for the lack of visual cool in the two alien kids looking just like humans. The main difference in feel to the previous two films is that the kids — called Seth and Sarah this time — feel very much like aliens. They speak in stilted English, know a lot more than the humans that help them, and are emotionally distant for most of the film. (They also have different powers from Tony and Tia. Sarah can read anyone’s mind, while Seth can alter his molecular density, to pass through solid objects or become solid enough to stop a car. He doesn’t have telekinesis, though.) The point of audience identification now isn’t the kids, but what the SF Encyclopaedia calls the “action hero as exasperated dad”, in the form of harassed cab driver Jack Bruno, played by Wayne “The Rock” Johnson. This film isn’t about being a kid who’s different and has cool super powers, it’s about being a single dad, having to juggle a low-paid job, a regrettable mob past, and a pair of demanding teenagers (alien teenagers, no less). It feels less like a kids’ movie, more a movie about having kids.

The Witch Mountain films (and there were a few other TV remakes, including one intended as a pilot for a series that never got made, as well as a jokey Blair Witch take-off directed by Ike Eisenmann (Tony from the original films)) don’t really say anything new or profound about the kids-with-psychic-powers theme, and in fact do a very good job of not including any of the deeper or more painful aspects of these stories (that it’s all a metaphor for being a sensitive, alienated child in a world that doesn’t really care, as exemplified by Carrie). But they were certainly part of the popularising of the idea, preparing a generation of kids to absorb the deeper themes of the likes of Chocky, ET, and perhaps from them to The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids, and so on.

Dragonslayer

For me, one of the joys of watching Dragonslayer is rediscovering what a great fantasy film it is. I’m not quite sure why I manage to forget, each time, how much I like it. Perhaps it’s down to the lack of extras on the DVD — something which always makes me feel a favourite’s going underappreciated — or perhaps it’s because it got a mixed critical reaction on its release, or that, being released in 1981, it lost out to Raiders of the Lost Ark for both a visual effects Oscar and a Hugo. To my mind, though, it’s as good a film as Raiders, it’s just that the way it tempers the straight-ahead heroism of its George-and-the-Dragon storyline with less purely archetypal, more humanly-believable characters — the very thing I like it for — may have weakened it in the public’s eye, particular when compared to the very obvious heroism of Indiana Jones.

Set in an authentic-feeling Dark Ages kingdom called Urland, Dragonslayer begins with a group of villagers, led by the young Valerian, setting out to ask the ageing sorcerer Ulrich (played by Ralph Richardson) for help against the best-named dragon in movies, Vermithrax Pejorative. (Latin is the language of magic in Dragonslayer.) Ulrich dies before he can help, but his young apprentice, Galen Gradwarden, decides to earn a reputation as a great sorcerer by fulfilling his master’s task. And he makes a good go of it, too, using his magic not to face the dragon directly, but to bury its cave in a massive rockfall. Everyone goes home to the village to celebrate, and Valerian reveals himself to be Valeria, a girl raised as a boy by her blacksmith father so as to avoid the lottery by which King Casiodorus picks maidens to sacrifice to Vermithrax. Then greedy Casiodorus confiscates Galen’s magical amulet (wanting to see if he can use it to turn lead into gold), and Vermithrax bursts free, meaning another lottery has to be held, another sacrifice made. Meanwhile, we’ve learned that, despite his protestations of the lottery’s fairness, King Casiodorus’s daughter’s name has been conspicuously absent from the drawings.

One of the most striking surprises of Dragonslayer is that, despite having the Disney name attached (it was a joint Disney-Paramount production), it’s very far from the traditional Disney style of fairy tale/fantasy — a point underlined by the scene where Galen enters the dragon’s lair intent on saving the sacrificial princess, only to find her dead and being eaten by baby dragons. Galen underlines the un-Disneyishness of the scene by sticking the baby dragons with his spear.

Vermithrax itself is one of the best pre-CGI dragons in movies, at least in those scenes where we get to see the whole of it. When it (or parts of it) interacts with humans, it’s less convincing (obviously being played by a large, robotic head, for instance), but when it wing-hobbles, bat-like, through its cave — a scene produced by a variant on stop-motion called go-motion, where rather than being animated a frame at a time, the dragon model was designed to perform a small motion each exposure, thus leading to a more fluid motion — is excellent, as are the scenes where it soars through the sky.

Quite often, it’s the little details that make the film. One of the best comes near the end where, with Vermithrax lying not just dead but partly exploded on the ground, King Cariodorus turns up to stab it with a sword, and thus be proclaimed dragonslayer. This is a world, you can’t help feeling, where although the most obvious evil (the dragon itself) has been dealt with, the background of petty human evils will remain. Our heroes have to set off for another land in search of their happily-ever-after.

And it’s one of the film’s plus points that Valeria and Galen share the hero’s role. Galen may be the one who wields the spear “Dragonslayer”, but Valeria is just as heroic, venturing into the monster’s lair to gather scales to make a fireproof shield, and, most surprising of all, not ending up having to be saved by her male counterpart at any point.

In contrast to the film’s dragons and sorcery, there’s a more historically authentic-seeming Christianity creeping into this post-Roman world via wandering holy men. Dragons and sorcerers are dying out, and Christianity is taking the place of the villagers’ superstitions. This actually seems to put the film’s Christianity in a rather odd light. Just as Casiodorus is going to make sure he goes down in history (which is written not by the heroes, but those in power) as the slayer of Vermithrax, Christianity is, rather by default, going to assume the same role in the eyes of the peasantry. They seem happier to believe it was God who slew the dragon, despite the earlier scene where a holy man (played by Ian McDiarmid, looking surprisingly young considering he would soon be the aged Emperor in Return of the Jedi), taking Vermithrax for Satan, tries the usual “get thee behind me” lines, and ends up being roasted alive. But by the end, the magic has left this world — not with the feeling of poetic loss you get from the departure of Tolkien’s elves, but, rather, like the exhaustion of an old-world magic the new world has no room for.

It’s the departures from what you’d expect of a heroic fantasy film that make Dragonslayer what it is. But it could well be these very departures that mean it’s not as appreciated as it ought to be. People no doubt expect a film called Dragonslayer to be a heroic tale in which some guy slays dragons. It is that. But it’s also so much more.

Disney’s Robin Hood

Rotten Tomatoes describes Disney’s Robin Hood as “one of the weaker Disney adaptations”, lacking “the majesty and excitement of the studio’s earlier efforts”, but it’s one of my favourite Disney films, thanks in part to an early memory of seeing it at the cinema and being captivated by one particular moment which has stayed with me for years.

In reality, the fox would now eat the rabbit

Robin Hood was released in 1973, but I can’t imagine myself remembering it from then (I’d have been 2). It was re-released in the early 80s (1982 in the USA, though IDMB has no record of when or whether it was re-released in the UK), and I distinctly remember seeing it in the very crowded, deep red gloom of the East Grinstead cinema-that-was, a gloominess I can’t help feeling added to my appreciation of this particular moment.

 

Of course, the fact it was a Disney take on an English legend may have helped, but I don’t particularly remember liking it for that reason. (Though I may have been unconsciously responding to the voices of Peter Ustinov as Prince John and Terry-Thomas as Hissing Sid — I mean Sir Hiss — both of them part of that wonderful family of actors you come across time and time again in old British films.) But this would have been before the TV series of Robin of Sherwood, so I wouldn’t have had any particular fondness for the legend, Robin Hood up to that point always seeming to me a bit pantomimish, particularly if Robin was represented (as he is here) in a silly be-feathered cap and the sort of Peter Pan-style tunic you’d rather have seen on a thigh-slapping young woman only pretending to be a boy.

I think it was the mood of the film that got me. Robin Hood is (for Disney) an uncharacteristically muted film, both in terms of emotional tone and colour scheme. Yes, it still has the sort of slapstick moments you’d expect (all the outwitting of the rhinoceros guards after the archery contest, for instance), but there’s a tantalising air of weariness and resignation throughout, just behind the action, like a light, damp English mist that’s seeped into the usually sunny Californian optimism.

The troubadour rooster who acts as the storyteller, for instance, seems to have a particularly world-weary tone, as if to suggest that for all Robin Hood’s triumphs, the outlook for the poor and downtrodden in England is grim in the long run. Friar Tuck is another character whose voice seems burdened by the weariness of Prince John’s relentless, greedy and wilful oppression. Prince John’s voice, on the other hand, plays wonderfully on the essential selfishness and childishness of the character (he’s a lion without a mane, so presumably physically immature, too), rather than a more traditional Disney evil — there’s a feeling that all this misery is the result of one character’s pettiness, self-absorption and inability to grow up, a boorish bully rather than the sort of raging adult evil you get from, say, the Queen in Snow White.

PJ in his PJ’s

The moment I most remember from this film, and that brings me back to re-watch it, isn’t an action sequence, and in fact occurs when there are no characters on screen. It’s just after the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (here, a mere village) has clapped pretty much everyone in jail for non-payment of recently doubled/trebled taxes, and we’re closing in on the outside of the jail. It’s just a scene-setting slow zoom. For some reason that mood of sadness and defeat, combined with the gentle rain and muted colours of the usually bright Disney, took me right into the film’s world. It was like it was one of the first moments in my cinema-going history when I really thought, “Yes, I know exactly how that feels.”

It’s a moment that happens in many Disney films, of course — the low point just before the hero snaps out of it and devises a plan to turn things round. But here, this particular air of sadness and defeat seems to be characteristic of the film as a whole, an undertone that has been sounding gently throughout, mostly drowned out by the antics of baby rabbits and thumb-sucking lions, but which is here allowed to come to the fore for one brief moment, because there’s no other action to distract from it.

So, in a sense, it was that very lack of “majesty and excitement” that makes the film what it is, for me. A moment of pure cinematic poetry.