There was very likely a moment in your life when you thought: “Hey, surely this is not my family?…. I’m not from here, right?… I’m from somewhere else….”

If that simple fact of modern human experience were not true, and almost universal, none of the major works of modern children’s fiction would have the resonant power that they do. Hogwarts’ Harry Potter is interesting, but much more so because he is adrift, seeking his “real” family, and his authentic home.  C.S. Lewis’ London evacuees don’t just enter a Narnian wardrobe of adventure, they find that they were destined to reign in a world about which they have had never been told.

And so it is with Escape to Witch Mountain, which scratches an itch at the core of modern childhood, rarely addressed in Disney’s conservative patriarchal ideology. It takes seriously this feeling of universal modern displacement. Despite conservative claims to family as a fount of community, the film acknowledges that childhood experience is marked by a sense of lost belonging. Here, we here root for two orphans, whose real families await them on the other side of a chaotic adventure.

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Figure 1: Tony and Tia have power and sight, with which they have to come to terms, like all of us…

On reflection, such plots aren’t especially new. They occupy some majority of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas of sailors and pirates. And Dickens’ most compelling and tragic tales do likewise, or Oliver Twist would have been Oliver Jones and no fun at all. Even Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a story of lost shipwrecked twins, surprised by identity and providence. In this sense, the narrative rhythm of Escape from Witch Mountain is really pretty old.

On the other hand, there is something about the film which feels uniquely modern, alienating, and anxious. This is because the two children outrun the long arm of power, which unites a greedy capitalist monster with the strength of corrupt and misguided law enforcement power (although… that does still sound like Dickens, doesn’t it?…).

A Kids-Oriented Road Movie

Escape to Witch Mountain introduces us to two children, Tony (Ike Eisenmann) and Tia Malone (Kim Richards), who are sent to an orphanage after the death of their foster parents. Here, they struggle for acceptance, but in the process, reveal their powers of telekinesis, telepathy, and foresight. These kids are cute, creepy, powerful, and besieged by the world around them.

Their tough world is first represented by a bully in the orphanage, “Truck” (played by a memorable Dermott Downs), but things soon turn far more sinister. After rescuing Lucas Deranian (a dead-perfect, wonderfully cold Donald Pleasence) by foreseeing and revealing his future car accident, that gentlemanly villain leads the children to his boss, the evil mastermind, Aristotle Bolt (played perfectly by a supremely sinister Ray Milland). Bolt seeks to exploit their abilities for naked gain, locking them in this fortress mansion on the Big Sur coast and using them to discover oil fields and do all kinds of evil whatnot.

Figure 2: Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence are as scary as Cruella De Vil… times two.

At this point, the film becomes a riotous chase, as the two children escape the fortress, cross the foreboding rural countryside of the Pacific coast, and attempt to seek a destination mapped in a mysterious “star case” attached to Tia’s left wrist. The main drama takes center stage when the kids stow away on a now-iconic Winnebago motor home, driven by a curmudgeonly widower Jason O’Day (Eddie Albert), a man whose life has long ago lost meaning and into which no children dare tread. He protects the two fugitives across a series of dangerous encounters, delivers them to their mysterious destination, and comes to soften his heart, accepting them as the kids he never had. Flying saucers collect our fugitives, with a final exposition explaining that these are merely the first of a whole population of lost saucer-children. This terrific ending, incites, I believe, self-questioning by every kid in the audience: “hey, maybe I’m an alien too!”.

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Figure 3: Eddie Albert discovers inner humanity by protecting these children.. who turn out not to be human at all.

Witch Mountain’s Psychic Geography

The villains carry a lot of water for the film, along with Eddie Albert, and the remote locations. These three components together give the drama a lot of power.

The bad guys, to start, offer a perfectly logical extension of desperate Capital. The villain, Aristotle Bolt, has, by this point, consulted astrologists, sorted fortune cookies, and otherwise apprenticed himself to all kinds of nonsense. These children provide a vindication for his wildest imagination (he keeps an astrologer on staff!) but prove that the power he imagines, ultimately exceeds his grasp. The children cannot be brought to heal. Donald Pleasance’s Deranian is similarly oblivious to the children’s capacity to elude their control… “would you like some ice cream children?”

But this is because the untold power of the two kids always exceeds their situation. What we want to know, at every turn, is whether they will realize their own powers (which we already know are more enormous than what we’ve already seen) to elude their pursuers. Sure, Tony can make marionettes dance on their own… but can he make a Winnebago fly? Because that would be handy now, with villains hot in pursuit!

So the underlying emotional geography of the film is realized scene-by-scene. The heroes arrive at a new location, some cruel and awful power is exerted over the two, and there follows a moment of emancipation, flight, and trickery. The two kids are improbably put in a dank county jail by an evil henchman and then liberated by Tony making a hat stand dance; this happens again and again.


Figure 4: Law enforcement is portrayed as basically evil, uncontrolled, and in pocket of Capital. Hard to argue…

What breaks this monotony of capture and escape is the gruff encounter of the children with Eddie Albert’s O’Day, who keeps trying to eject the children from his life, but always returns to save them and advance them to their destiny. And at each turn, the characters move further along the California coast, beautifully implacable, crashing and dense with waves and forest. The whole cast is drawn towards a showdown in the rugged landscape from which only flying saucers could possibly emerge.


Figure 5: Tony and Tia wave goodbye to the audience as they transcend our petty world.

The geography of Escape from Witch Mountain is one of a call and response, where their trip towards a remote, inevitable destiny is violently rejected by villains and lightly enabled by a resistant ally. This makes it reasonably good drama. I remember liking it as a kid.

The Limits of a Disney in its Wilderness

But the movie suffers from the sense that no one is paying attention.

The film is marked by 1960s inattention to both cinematic style and special effects. Unimaginatively shot from scene to scene, adult characters put in “aw shucks” performances against the earnest efforts of the child actors.

As to special effects, these feel less sophisticated than what was put on offer in Mary Poppins a long decade before. The strings attached to flying objects are transparent. The flying Winnebago is carelessly imposed over landscape film stock. It feels as if no one at the studio really cares.

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Figure 6: Moment of special effects stand out in my memory – a helicopter flying upside down is striking, disorienting, and imaginative, but now it feels like a cheap afterthought.

And why should they? Escape to Witch Mountain was just another live action place-holder, produced at the point of the studio’s deepest eclipse in the mid-1970s. There is a lot of local well-meaning, in other words, with thoughtful performances, competent writing, and so-so effects, but the full weight of Disney magic is nowhere in sight.

A film about orphans had been orphaned by its studio.

Figure 7: In the end, we watch as the children escape in an unimaginative flying saucer. I sort of hoped it would be something more…

For Escape to Witch Mountain, the result is therefore somewhat boring and underwhelming, but has to be credited as being the most challenging picture the studio could present in that moment, a period in Disney’s nadir, marked by painful failures imposed by an otherwise unimaginative nostalgia machine.

It may not matter that the film isn’t very good, of course, because one thing stands out; Escape to Witch Mountain bravely presents and answers the existential question we have all asked at some time: is this my world?

Chances that Alexander will find this film interesting: Fair/Good.