When director Andy Fickman first approached Dwayne Johnson about starring in a re-imagination of “Escape to Witch Mountain,” the wrestler-turned-actor wasn’t sure where he’d fit in.
The 1975 live-action Disney film told the story of a pair of freaky superpowered orphans and their unexpected guardian angel, a gentle RV-driving widower played by 69-year-old Eddie Albert.
“When I rewatched it, I thought, ‘That’s interesting,”’ Johnson said. “‘Eddie Albert looks like he’s 70. I think that’s the role I would play. I know we have wonderful makeup artists, but I’m not sure they could age me up that much.’
“When I talked to Andy, he assured me he wanted to contemporize it and make the audience feel like they’re on a ride.”
Johnson plays beefy ex-con taxi driver Jack Bruno in Fickman’s “Race to Witch Mountain,” in theaters Friday.
Teenage aliens Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sara (AnnaSophia Robb) are on the run from both a top-secret government agency headed by agent Henry Burke (Ciaran Hinds) and an extraterrestrial assassin named The Siphon.
Johnson, who ruptured his Achilles tendon in 2006 while preparing for his role as a football player in “The Game Plan,” said he was eager to get back to doing his own stunts.
“I was hurt on ‘The Game Plan,’ so I wasn’t able to do my own stunts. The fact I could jump back into doing my own stunts for this was superexciting for me,” the 36-year-old Johnson said on the set of “Race to Witch Mountain” last May during a break in shooting.
“I went off with the second unit and was racing a cab at 60 miles per hour, banging into the sides of SUVs and getting airborne,” he said.
Such high-octane action is a far cry from the flying RV and magical harmonica depicted in the original film. Fickman also piled on sci-fi references and injected Sin City throughout the movie.
Original tweens Tony (played by Ike Eisenmann) and Tia’s (Kim Richards) superpowers have also received a 21st-century makeover.
Sara uses telepathy and telekinesis to talk to dogs, read minds and shut doors. Her brother can slip through — and stop — solid objects by changing the density of his body.
Fickman cast Eisenmann and Richards, who also appeared in the 1978 sequel, “Return From Witch Mountain,” as adults who help Sara and Seth when they stop in Stony Creek — the original movie’s setting — while on their way to retrieve their impounded flying saucer from a secret government lab inside Witch Mountain.
“I always hoped they would remake it,” Richards said. “In my head and heart, I always felt they would because there isn’t a day that goes by that people don’t stop me and ask me about ‘Witch Mountain.’ Andy called me and said they were in final discussions, and he wanted to let me know because this was our baby. It really does mean so much to so many people.”
Said Eisenmann: “I know they’ve been trying to do a remake for a long time. I think it’s perfect timing. It’s probably more beneficial to the whole franchise because the approach Andy has taken with ‘Race to Witch Mountain’ is the perfect way to celebrate the original and also bring something new and exciting.”
The original films — Disney’s first foray into science fiction — amassed a cult following from movie theater audiences and later on the Disney Channel. Disney is tapping into the nostalgia by releasing new special editions of the 1975 and 1978 films on DVD.
Could a “Witch Mountain” attraction at Disneyland be next?
“That’s what we’re all hoping,” said Fickman. “I’m not even joking around about that. That would be awesome. I have ideas. I think this film would lend itself really well to a cool ride. For a Disney movie, I think having a ride based on your work is the ultimate compliment, but that sort of thing is decided on by people who get paid much more than we do.”