Escape to Witch Mountain at 40: Good for Disney then, good for kids to this day

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Mar 20, 2015, 10:02 AM EDT

Forty years ago, 1975 brought the arrival of a number of sci-fi, horror and fantasy films that made an impact on their genres -- some good, some not so good, but all interesting and all remembered even to this day. We continue our look back at each of those films on the anniversary of its release and where it stands four decades later with a Disney favorite ...

Title: Escape to Witch Mountain

Release date: March 21, 1975

Cast:  Eddie Albert, Ray Milland, Donald Pleasence, Kim Richards, Ike Eisenmann

Director: John Hough

Plot: Tony and Tia Malone (Eisenmann and Richards) are an orphaned brother and sister who have remarkable psychic powers such as telepathy, psychokinesis and precognition. When a millionaire businessman named Bolt (Milland) attempts to become their guardian in order to exploit their gifts, the children flee and find their way -- with the help of an elderly, cantankerous loner (Albert) making a cross-country drive -- to Witch Mountain, an epicenter of strange phenomena that may hold the answers about the children's past.

Why it's significant: One could argue that this kid-friendly sci-fi adventure, based on a novel by Alexander Key, was one of the few bright spots that possibly saved the Disney movie studio during the '70s. The company's animated fare had largely dried up, and it was relying more and more on reissued classics and a few live-action comedies. Escape to Witch Mountain was a different type of film for the studio and enough of a hit to keep the Disney brand in the game.

Beyond that, you can see the influence of Escape to Witch Mountain -- which looks dated but still charming by today's standards in terms of its visuals -- in later films by no less a filmmaker than Steven Spielberg. Certain shots are echoed in Jurassic Park and E.T.: The Extraterrestrial -- the latter most notably in the bicycle chase scene, which climaxes in a similar way to the Winnebago chase in this movie. 

More importantly, the themes of Escape to Witch Mountain -- feeling isolated and alone and like an outcast because you're "different" -- have reverberated through kid-friendly (and even adult-friendly) films for decades since. From E.T. to The Goonies to Divergent, the movies have featured scores of kids who struggle to fit in and end up realizing that it's more important to be your best, true self. Escape to Witch Mountain did not originate that theme by any means, but its heart is in the right place and it perhaps came at just the right time to point the way for future films that have become classics in their own right.

Other entries in this series: