Fantasy films are a tough genre for any but the biggest studios to produce. They’re usually large in scope, require copious amounts of expensive CGI, and ideally stem from a well-known literary source to give the film a built-in audience on opening weekend. This is doubly true for children’s fantasy as the wee little ones require enough spectacle and effects to keep them coming back to the theater again and again. So what do you do if you don’t have a production deal with Walt Disney or Walden Media? What do you do if your film is based on a book with immense popularity… in New Zealand? You hire WETA Workshop for their special effects wizardry and Sam Neill for his general bad-assery. That’s what. But will it be enough…?
Theo (Tom Cameron) and Rachel (Sophie McBride) are twins living in New Zealand who share the gift of psychic ability and the curse of being red-heads. They’ve recently lost their mum, and their dad’s way of dealing with it all is to send the teens to Auckland to stay with relatives. They’re welcomed warmly by their uncle, aunt, and horn-dog older cousin Ricky (Leon Wadham), but the siblings find themselves at odds with each other as Theo shuts Rachel out emotionally in his grief. The twins try to settle in, but problems quickly arise when curiosity and script necessity lead to them exploring a creepy old house across the lake. It belongs to the Wilberforces, a family of shape-shifting mausoleum employees with waxy features, who’ve been waiting for just such a pair of red-headed twins to complete their centuries-old effort to destroy the Earth with gigantic creatures residing beneath the city’s multiple dormant volcanoes. Humanity’s hope comes in the form an older man named Mr. Jones (Sam Neill) who has a fondness for gingers, a tale the size of a T-Rex to tell about aliens and destiny, and a pair of stones in his pockets that need to feel the warmth of young teenagers’ hands.
I haven’t read the best-selling “Under the Mountain” novel by Maurice Gee, nor have I seen the very popular Kiwi TV series made from it, but I have to imagine both of them did a better job at telling an engaging and interesting story than this new film does. Theo and Rachel are introduced briefly as being quite close before their mother dies and grief forces Theo to shut down emotionally. That makes fine dramatic sense, but Theo also develops an anger towards Rachel and an unexplained loss of faith in her that affects their psychic bond. It becomes important to the plot later on but it makes no sense in its inception. Instead of naturally grieving teens we’re left with a prickish boy and an ineffective girl. She literally can do little to nothing without him which isn’t exactly a message you want to spread to young girls is it?
With uninteresting leads it falls to the film’s story to captivate and engage the audience, but it’s only slightly more successful here. Using psychic twins as a catalyst is nothing new (see Escape to Witch Mountain), yet the specificity of their being red-headed seems extraneous (and offensive to those of us allergic to their ilk). The basic setup is also a bit too convoluted when it comes to the dueling alien races, their motivations, and their abilities. Twins have the inherent power of ‘twinness’ and therefore are the only ones who can stop the Wilberforces, and yet they need magic pet rocks in order to do so. The fate of the entire world is at risk here but the most threatening thing we see is a bunch of guys in suits who look like they’ve spent the last few weeks dead under water. Director Jonathan King has done a 180 degree turn around from his last film, the fun little gorefest called Black Sheep, but he seems to have bitten off more than he can handle here. The film needed a grander scope to tell a story about aliens trying to destroy our world, and King just can’t seem to find it.
The acting and characters in Under the Mountain are a mixed bag. Neill obviously shines in his role as a cantankerous alien because the man is awesome in every role, but even he can’t make the term ‘twinness’ sound anything but stupid no matter how many times he says it (about thirty-four times). Silly terminology aside, he still has that adventurous and playful glint in his eyes that reminds you positively of films like Jurassic Park, In the Mouth of Madness, and Sirens. Wadham has nothing memorable on his resume, but he still manages to steal each of his scenes in the film as the constantly interrupted and sexually frustrated teen who simply wants a taste of his girlfriend’s Kiwi. He’s got the film’s best lines and some solid comic timing as well. Less fortunate are Cameron and McBride as the twins. I’ll admit I have a general bias against gingers, but their serviceable acting and one-note characters don’t help any.
There are parts of Under the Mountain that do work, and they start with Auckland itself. This is an absolutely beautiful location and King has captured it brilliantly from the volcanic landscape to the lush forests. He shows us a world both inviting and dangerous, and the shots of Auckland’s incredible geography are as much moving postcards for New Zealand as The Lord of the Rings films were. WETA also impresses with creepy and gross practical effects for the Wilberforces and various other creatures. They’re effectively slimy-looking and frightening, but the same effectiveness doesn’t hold for the film’s digital work.
Under the Mountain isn’t a bad film, but I can’t help wonder what it would have looked like with more money behind it. Not that money equals quality, as big-budget fantasy stinkers like The Golden Compass have showed us, but a grander scale behind the story’s setting and dangers could only have helped. As it stands we’re left with a film that will probably play extremely well in its native land where viewers can fill in the narrative gaps with knowledge they possess from the book and TV series, but international audiences will probably be left wanting quite a bit more.
The Upside: Sam Neill; some cool creature effects
The Downside: Too silly to take seriously; the two teens are morons; the danger feels arbitrary and underwhelming; gingers!
On the Side: This is actually my 100th review for Film School Rejects. Ideally it would have been for a better film…