Sin City, Disney collide onscreen

In the new movie "Race to Witch Mountain," the fate of two worlds hinges on a pair of extraterrestrial teens — and the hard-luck Las Vegas cabby who finds himself along for the life-or-death ride.

But the movie, which lands in theaters today, also represents the collision of two very different entertainment galaxies: its family-friendly studio, Walt Disney Pictures, and its primary setting, Las Vegas.

"Doing a Disney movie in Sin City is challenging," "Witch Mountain" director Andy Fickman cheerfully acknowledges while leading a recent minitour of the south Strip for a busload of TV journalists following a screening of his "reimagining" of the 1975 Disney favorite "Escape to Witch Mountain." (Fickman’s a natural; his first showbiz job was as a Universal Studios tour guide.)

"Look around at any of the billboards," Fickman suggests as the bus rolls by several suggestive come-ons looming over the Strip, describing them as "billboards that Disney wouldn’t want." At least not in a Disney movie.

During production, Fickman recalls, star Dwayne Johnson (the actor formerly known as The Rock) would be in midscene and the director would think, " ‘Ooh, that’s good.’ " That is, until "all of a sudden, there’s a naked lady" on a billboard rolling past, Fickman says, prompting an immediate " ‘Ooh, that’s bad.’ "

So why tempt the fates by putting "Race to Witch Mountain" in such a racy setting?

"When people were asking, ‘Why Vegas?’ " Fickman replied, " ‘Just think of the fun of landing as an alien — and the first city you ever saw was Las Vegas.’ "

To Johnson (who previously collaborated with Fickman on the 2007 Disney hit "The Game Plan"), "Las Vegas is phenomenal" — and so was the support the production received last summer during the two-week location visit.

Las Vegas police shut down the Strip so the production could shoot driving scenes without actual Strip traffic interfering. (During one surreal moment between takes, Johnson — playing cabdriver Jack Bruno — got out of his taxi to stretch, unaware that hovering over his shoulder was a Madame Tussauds sign displaying a picture of his wax counterpart.)

At other times when Johnson was in character behind the wheel of his taxi, eager fans would skirt on-set security and pile into the back seat just to meet him, Johnson recalls. "They’d be very excited and I’d turn around and say, ‘Sorry, this is not a real cab.’ "

The interlopers would then apologize profusely for their mistake, he adds — but not before they grabbed souvenir photos with their cell phones.

Johnson didn’t have to do much first-person research about life as a Las Vegas taxi driver, because Fickman "did a lot of my research for me," he says, riding along with local cabbies and incorporating some of their experiences into the script.

And because of his affection for the original 1972 "Witch Mountain," Johnson wondered whether a remake was even a good idea.

"My first concern was, it’s a classic," Johnson says. "I get sensitive about that." And "having gone through that process" with a 2004 remake of "Walking Tall," Johnson asked Fickman, " ‘Are you sure you really want to do this? It’s tricky.’ "

So was filming "Race to Witch Mountain" — especially on location inside Planet Hollywood Resort, where gamblers and other onlookers shared the casino floor with cast and crew.

After all, "it’s still a working casino," Fickman acknowledges, with "everybody who’s come to gamble" flanking the production. "And they’re not going to stop if they’re on a winning streak."

It didn’t matter what time that winning streak struck, either.

In most major cities, the overnight hours — midnight to 6 a.m. — guarantee a "ghost town," prime time for uninterrupted filming, Fickman explains. "But in Vegas, 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. are the same."

Beyond the general complications of casino filming, "Witch Mountain" also had to figure out a way to get the movie’s extraterrestrial teens (played by 15-year-old AnnaSophia Robb and 16-year-old Alexander Ludwig) into the action — despite the fact that Nevada law prohibits under-21s from being in gaming areas.

"We were the first kids ever legally allowed to be on the casino floor," Ludwig says, noting that, between takes, "we had to get back on the ‘yellow brick road’ " separating Planet Hollywood’s gambling and nongambling areas. "But I really wanted to go up to one of those (slot) machines!"

In contrast to the glitz of the Strip, "Race to Witch Mountain" also gives audiences a glimpse of a grittier Las Vegas — at Jack Bruno’s ever-so-humble home, Fremont Street’s Fergusons Motel, located between 10th and 11th streets.

During a preshoot scout, Fickman and his colleagues spotted Fergusons and did everything but yell "Eureka!" in delight.

"The neon was flickering, the pool was empty," the director recalls. "And I thought, ‘This is it.’ Nothing we will find is going to be better."

Fickman had the same reaction to another Southern Nevada wonderland: Red Rock Canyon, which serves "Witch Mountain’s" distant-planet requirements quite nicely.

While Fickman and colleagues were scouring Southern Nevada for "Witch Mountain" locations, Mars landing craft were beaming back photos of the Red Planet, and Fickman would put photos of Mars next to photos of Red Rock, challenging others to tell the difference between the two. (As often as not, they’d guess wrong.)

So, Fickman figured there’s something sort of Mars-like about the terrain, making it an ideal cinematic backdrop. "There’s something kind of mystical and magical about those areas," he muses. And, in "a road movie, where do you want to drive by?"

The surreal aspects of filming in the desert didn’t escape Robb’s notice, however.

"You’re out, literally, in the middle of nowhere," she says, surrounded by vast expanses of desert — and "our own little circus set-up" of essential filmmaking equipment, from dressing-room trailers to food tables. "When lots of people are out there, it’s kind of surreal."

Then again, so is Las Vegas. — but in a good way.

"It’s such an alive city," Johnson says. "For me, it was a great experience." One that he’s more than ready to repeat.

"The fun part is Round Two," he says, expressing definite interest in a sequel. (Assuming moviegoers are equally interested, that is.) "And we will come right back here to Vegas."

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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