By Matthew Sorrento | March 13, 2009

When he crooked an eyebrow and dropped elbows as “The Rock,” thousands of kids hung onto Dwayne Johnson’s every move. A likable hard-body, he seemed out of place when Vince McMahon temporarily casted him as a WWE villain. He had his best moments grabbing the mic for soap opera trash-talk against his opponents. This experienced crowd-pleaser even charmed the Oscars crowd in 2008, while Katherine Heigl, a television star with aspirations higher than her talents, nearly passed out on the stage.

In the Rock’s body-slamming days, there’s no doubt he dreamed of following Arnold to the big screen. Now Johnson’s been granted kiddy-care as an escort in Disney’s “Race to Witch Mountain,” a near wall-to-wall reworking of the company’s 1975 kids film. The original “Escape” has become a “Race” in more than just the name: a children’s fantasy has turned into an action flick starring two kids.

A loner manning a cab in Las Vegas, Johnson’s Jack Bruno is just waiting for his Disney vehicle to rev up. It takes off when two blond tweens – AnnaSophia Robb and Alexander Ludwig – hop a ride and need transfer to a remote location. Jack agrees with some grumbling, until a few Men in Black chase down these strange kids who are on an otherworldly mission. When their pursuit results in a near-crash, Johnson starts “Walking Tall” with a crowbar, doing what he knows well. If he performs anger, he’s within his range, but when he attempts gravity in closeup, he becomes self-conscious, almost hammy. Johnson seems more at home in comic moments, of which filmmakers should take note: comic skill is more precious than Jason Statham operating grounds.

Thus, Johnson becomes a kid-friendly mentor, as he was on the mat. He operates on the young actors’ level, while they are locked down in an odd alien-speak. They pull off all kinds of tricks to serve up digital eye-candy – like the boy stopping an SUV as if he holds a tank’s weight within himself – though they really need a teddy-bear uncle who will swing a mean paw should they be wronged.

While the premise promises adventure, director Andy Fickman and screenwriters Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback rely on action scenes, almost all of which cast aside youthful wonderment that should be inherent in such a film. Too often we watch Johnson throwing fists as if Jet Li were about to make a cameo. Even moderately successful kids’ fantasies like “The Spiderwick Chronicles” and “Inkheart” know that an imaginative approach is a must – if such stories can’t make kids wonder, then filmmakers should steer off to another genre.

“Race” can satisfy with a steady pace, fueled by a Terminator-meets-Predator on their tail – when this looming thing goes head-to-head with Johnson, wrestling fans can’t help but recall the Rock getting tossed around by Kane. Kids will want to root for their alien counterparts on screen. But they are second fiddle to the Rock wracking it up.

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