TIFF 09: UNDER THE MOUNTAIN Review
Those bemoaning the somewhat overly-sanitary monopoly the folks at Walden currently hold on the world of child and tween oriented fantasy, take heart. Black Sheep director Jonathan King has arrived with his adaptation of popular New Zealand novel - adapted into a television series in 1982 - Under The Mountain and while his new effort is worlds away from his debut picture it definitely brings a fresh perspective to its chosen genre.
Theo and Rachel share an uncommon bond. Not only are the young teens twins but they seem to share a telepathic link, able to communicate without words and - on occasion - feel what the other feels. It's the sort of bond that would appear hard to break, but life can be a hard place and when their mother is struck down and killed in an accident Theo retreats into silence and anger, abandoning Rachel emotionally and forcing her to cope on her own. Managing even worse is their father who, unable to deal with much of anything, packs the pair up and sends them to live with their aunt, uncle and cousin in Auckland, a city built on a string of volcanoes.
Auckland - particularly as captured by King - is a truly breathtaking place, a gorgeous setting for gorgeous homes that should be an ideal place to recuperate, ideal if not for the run down house just around the shore of the lake from the twins. The Wilberforce place. There are rumors and speculation about the Wilberforces, rumors mostly put down to kids being kids and the ramshackle state of their home. But the Wilberforces are watching. The twins have something they want. Or perhaps the twins are something they want. Or, most disturbingly, perhaps the twins are very specifically something they do not want.
It's the latter option of course, as we learn via a chance encounter with Sam Neill's Mr Jones - the final survivor of an alien race who traveled to Earth with his own twin to destroy the evil race that destroyed his own planet only to fail when his twin died. The evil race, of course, are the Wilberforces - imprisoned here but not destroyed - and only a special set of twins can wield the weapons that Mr Jones carries to finish the job. A special set of twins exactly like Theo and Rachel, if only they could reconcile their own differences.
Beautifully shot and with creature effects from New Zealand's Weta Workshop, Under The Mountain sits very comfortably with the current wave of high end youth fantasy coming out of Hollywood today. While the script shows definite signs of having been compressed down from a larger work, King does a very good job of establishing Theo and Rachel right at the outset and drawing strong performances from his young stars, both of whom of making their feature film debuts here. Unlike the current block of Walden titles there's no fear of making the peril perilous and keeping the stakes high. The Wilberforces are powerful, frightening villains and there's no doubt that Theo and Rachel will die - and die painfully - should they fall into the clutches of the shape-shifting brood.
Fans of King's Black Sheep who are still holding on to faint hope that Under The Mountain may contain some of the gonzo spirit of that film need to disabuse themselves of that notion right now. This is an entirely different sort of film, one made with entirely different aims, with an entirely different audience in mind. And it's one that succeeds in meeting its goals just as well as Black Sheep did. This is solid, broadly commercial film making for kids and while not a classic by any stretch it is very strong and will certainly find a large and appreciative audience.