As this New Zealand fantasy import begins we observe in the year 1879 where Mr. Jones (Sam Neil) escorts twin bothers carrying glowing rocks on a life or death mission to battle some vicious beasts. One of the brothers drops his rock. This is not good for the other brother who would really appreciate it if Mr. Jones would lend a helping hand. Observe as Mr. Jones uses his mystical abilities of transportation to get the hell out of there. Note to future world saving twins, Mr. Jones will NOT have your back when the dookey hits the fan. The name of this movie is ‘Under the Mountain’ which was begat from a much loved book from author Maurice Gee which also spawned a much loved Television mini-series back in the 80’s. Those who have read the book and watched the television show, generally speaking, do not care for this movie all that much. I’ve done neither so I can approach this work as a standalone project.
Fast forward a hundred plus years where we meet Theo (Tom Cameron) and his twin sister Rachel (Sophie McBride) who are attempting to deal with the tragic loss of their mother. Before this the twins had a special, almost psychic bond, but it looks like Theo has lost all of his compassion for others, including his sister who just wants her brother back the way he used to be.
The twins are temporarily living in the big city with their aunt and uncle while their father works out his own mental issues, and this is where Theo stumbles upon a disheveled looking Mr. Jones. Theo observed Mr. Jones photograph in a book, but that picture was over a hundred years old so needless to say, Theo is curious.
After realizing that he won’t be able to shake the boy, Mr. Jones tells Theo an amazing story. It appears that Mr. Jones is from another planet, his planet destroyed by a group of evil beasts called the Wilberforce, who by chance happen to be living next door to the aunt and uncle, and who in conjunction with a legion of giant monsters called the Gargantua, the Wilberforce have been going from planet to planet laying waste. They would’ve laid the Earth to bear as well if Mr. Jones hadn’t been around to imprison them. But now circumstance has arrived where the Wilberforce have found a way to free themselves and are now working on reawakening the Gargantua which would really suck for us on this planet.
The only thing that can stop this terrible event are twins with a special bond who can harness the fire rock. Or something. The problem is that in our situation one twin believes in the other while the other twin believes in nothing but himself. This won’t work. Both twins have to believe in their twinness… that what Mr. Jones said… or we’re done. Finished. Caput.
So this is what passes for children’s entertainment in New Zealand, huh? Slimy, creepy, horrific beasts with tendrils for arms dead set on child murder. And from all accounts this rendition of Gee’s novel is Under the Mountain-lite so if you were a kid in New Zealand in the late 70’s or early 80’s and read ‘Under the Mountain’ before you went to bed every night, you have a certifiable excuse for being all messed up.
Regardless of all of that, even without having the novel or the eight hour miniseries to lean upon, there was still something that seemed vaguely absent from this movie while I was watching it. It felt almost as if I were watching the outline of story as opposed to a full featured, fleshed out, complete work. As far as I could tell, everything is there. A quick shot of Mr. Jones in the past, we meet the twins, they lose their mother, they go to the big city, Theo acts like a jerk, they see the ugly house across the way, they meet Mr. Jones, Mr. Jones tells us a story, the Wilberforce attacks, the twins are fractured and the twins unite. That seems pretty complete to me, and watching the movie I didn’t feel cheated in the sense that large chunks of the story were left out, but it did seem as if large sections in support of these base elements weren’t in this film, largely I imagine due to time constraints. I just witnessed a Cliff Notes version of a real movie.
This isn’t to say I was completely disappointed with what I got out of ‘Under the Mountain’ considering Cliff Notes got me through college which has given me the ability to relate to sketchy stories and mentally fill in the blanks on the fly. Director Jonathan King, who I have to say has made three distinctly different films with this one, the dark horror comedy ‘Black Sheep’ and the more odd mystical horror movie ‘The Tattooist’, keeps his movie moving, probably more so out of sheer necessity than anything else, and the performances are rock solid. Particularly young Sophie McBride who did a fine job offsetting the obnoxiousness put forth by Tom Cameron’s Theo with her compassionate and emotional portrayal of the character of Rachel. The special effects were well done and the Wilberforce monsters were suitably creepy, but because of the compressed nature of this version of the story and the quickened pace, it was difficult for the movie to adequately build up any real tension. Thus when our kids are in the most trouble and all looks lost, that feeling of dread that I imagine we should’ve been experiencing simply wasn’t there, and the Gargantua beasts were at best footnotes in this particular story.
Even though I could plainly see that there were things missing from this tale, it was still watchable and I think a younger viewer, who hasn’t read the book, would get a lot more out of it. But then a younger viewer would also probably be scared to death watching this movie. It is a conundrum.