TIFF '09 Review: 'Under the Mountain'


Sci-fi / horror films made for early adolescents are pretty rare. Half-decent ones are rarer still. But I know for a fact that a large portion of my movie-geek generation has a strong affection for old Disney chillers like Escape to Witch Mountain, The Watcher in the Woods, and Something Wicked This Way Comes -- and obviously I bring those films up because the recent New Zealand import Under the Mountain feels a lot like those movies. Not nearly as starchy and certainly not as corny, but clearly intended for a young (at heart) movie fan who doesn't mind a little family-friendliness mixed in with his magical adventures, mystical strangers, and massive monsters.

Based on the award-winning 1979 novel by Maurice Gee (one of New Zealand's most popular and prolific authors), Under the Mountain is about a pair of teenage twins who are sent to spend some time with their cousin's family after a family tragedy. It doesn't take long before Theo and Rachel (Tom Cameron and Sophie McBride, both newcomers and both quite good throughout) hear legends of the creepy family known as Wilberforce, and once they cross paths with the curious Mr. Jones (Sam Neill), the twins come to realize that something truly creepy is going on beneath each of New Zealand's massive volcanoes.

All sorts of fantastic elements soon come into play, including ESP, magical stones, and monsters straight out of a Lovecraft story, but Cameron and McBride are so mild and likable, it makes all of the crazy stuff feel a little less ... silly. (And heck, Sam Neill is on board, my young movies fans. That's always a good thing.)

Although certainly not squeaky clean (and, yes, even a little scary once or twice), Under the Mountain seems intent on delivering a science-fiction / monster movie / adventure tale that's suitable for (mostly) all ages, and by that standard, one can happily contend that director Jonathan King (Black Sheep) does a more than serviceable job. Backed by some stunning New Zealand cinematography, a lot of truly amusing "matinee style" spectacle and special effects from Weta Workshop, and a plot that drives forward at an appreciable clip, Under the Mountain is a little dash of The Hardy Boys, a little slice of The X-Files, and a fun-sized chunk of Jules Verne meets Ray Harryhausen.

Director King, his co-writer Matthew Grainger, and pretty much the whole of the NZ production crew seems well aware that they're trying to adapt a well-admired national favorite, and as such, the film feels halfway stuck in its original era (which means its a bit sweet and occasionally, fine, corny), and halfway intent on being a plain old genre adventure for families. Seasoned fans of fantastic cinema who are willing to lower their cynicism meter just a touch as they settle in will most likely find a fast-paced, well-produced, and affectionately nostalgic little genre flick. Those who are expecting a typically bombastic, ironically hip, and wonderfully violent monster movie ... may want to look elsewhere.