More kids movies need to be like Under the Mountain. It’s inventive, action-packed, and, at times, downright scary. There are adventures, monsters, danger, and humor. It stands head and shoulders above many movies in the genre that have none of the things kids actually want, and it doesn’t insult their intelligence, which is a novel concept. Under the Mountain gets extra points for being directed by Jonathan King, who is responsible for New Zealand’s zombie sheep extravaganza Black Sheep.
Rachel and Theo (played by newcomers Sophie McBride and Tom Cameron) are happy-go-lucky twins who share an uncommon psychic bond. They are closer than close, but that changes when their mother dies in an accident. Theo backs away from his sister, unable to face his grief. Their father has a breakdown and ships the pair off to stay with their aunt and uncle in Auckland, a city ringed by seven dormant volcanoes. King makes full use of the unique physical attributes of the city, introducing it largely with sweeping aerial shots that capture the breathtaking beauty of the place.
Things are not as idyllic as they appear on the surface. The creepy neighbors, the Wilberforces, are actually shape shifting otherworldly creatures determined to take over the planet with their army of giant monsters, the Gargantua. Only Rachel and Theo have the power to stop them. With the help of grizzled neighborhood weirdo, Mr. Jones (Sam Neill), who likes to hang out in the park and play with fire, and cousin Ricky (Leon Wadham), who is more interested in losing his virginity than helping his relatives, they set out to fulfill their destiny and save the world.
Under the Mountain follows in the footsteps of movies like Goonies and Monster Squad. It lets the kids be the heroes, which is what kids really want to see. They get to have the adventures. The fate of the world lies in their hands. Grown ups only stand in their way. Under the Mountain is one of those rare movies that doesn’t talk down to kids, where the adults don’t swoop in at the last moment and save the day, and it gives the target audience their due.
The story can be a little bleak, and the heroes are in actual danger. There are times when you’re not sure that everything is going to work out. They might fail, and everything might not be okay. In order to defeat the Wilberforces, Rachel and Theo will have to put aside their problems and work together, and there is a very real possibility that won’t happen.
In addition to being beautiful photographed, the creatures look great. Once again WETA Workshop (The Lord of the Rings, The Host, Black Sheep) delivers and shows that they are the current gold standard for movie monsters. Their creations are spooky and intricate, and they find the perfect balance between applications, puppets, and physical effects, and digital additions. They blend the two elements well, and it shows on screen.
Under the Mountain is based on a beloved New Zealand children’s book that both King and his co-writer Matthew Grainger have wanted to adapt into a movie for years. I’m not familiar with the book, but there are a few moments where it is obvious they had to gloss over some things that the novel delves into further. This doesn’t impact the story, the pace, or the enjoyment of the film, but if you look closely there are a few minor things taken for granted. King and Grainger talk about this in the commentary track that accompanies the DVD release. They wanted to capture the feel of the book, but didn’t want to force an audience of children to sit through a two and a half hour long movie, which is understandable.
The DVD also comes with 50-minute collection of video that is part making-of, and part behind-the-scenes. The stuff at WETA that captures the creation of the monsters is the most interesting, but there are some fun moments with Wadham, who spends most of the movie driving, learning how to drive a car for the first time.
The villains are frightening, the stakes are high, the danger is real, and so is the fun. Under the Mountain is well acted, beautifully shot, and achieves everything it sets out to do. It is one of those movies that you won’t mind watching with your kids.