This feature adaptation of New Zealand author Maurice Gee's much-loved fantasy novel Under the Mountain
benefits greatly from impressive CGI effects by the Oscar-winning Weta Workshop (The Lord of the Rings
) and the presence of Sam Neill as a mysterious figure who aids two telepathic teens in a bid to save the world. The title was previously filmed as a miniseries in 1982, and cowriter-director Jonathan King--light years away from his debut film, the deliriously gory Black Sheep
--works hard to compress the source material into a 90-minute film, which ups the age of its twin protagonists Rachel (Sophie McBride) and Theo (Tom Cameron) from age 12 to mid-teens and reduces their mentor, Mr. Jones (Neill), to an enigmatic cipher. The shorter running time also favors the action elements of the story, which involve the teens' discovery that their neighbors, the Wilberforces, are alien slugs who care for a monstrous, world-devouring race called the Gargantua, over the relationship between the siblings, which formed the backbone of the original novel and the reason why it found a place in the heart of so many preteen readers. As a result, teen viewers--the film's clear target audience--will either find Under the Mountain
a thrilling adventure or a noisy, messy fright fest, depending on their particular tastes. However, the Weta effects are typically top-notch, especially in regard to the hideous Wilberforces. The DVD includes commentary by King and cowriter Matthew Grainger, who discuss, among other topics, the influence of H.P. Lovecraft's writing on their film's aesthetics, as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette. --Paul Gaita
Teenage twins Rachel and Theo travel to Auckland to stay with relatives following the sudden death of their mother. Where there was once a psychic bond between them, now there is a rift as Theo, particularly, refuses to confront his grief. Rachel reaches out to him, but is rebuffed. Staying with their Aunt Kay and Uncle Cliff on Lake Pupuke, the twins are fascinated by the volcanic lake and the smell that seems to come from the creepy old Wilberforce house around the shore. They visit Mt. Eden, where Theo sees Mr. Jones, a strange old man from whose hands fire seems to glow. When it seems the twins are being watched – and that the Wilberforces can smell them – Theo resolves to investigate the Wilberforce house. Inside, he and Rachel find what can only be an alien environment. They overhear Mr. Wilberforce talking about something stirring beneath the ground. He says he will kill the twins if they find “the fire-raiser.” Rachel is alarmed and reaches out to Theo but, terrified of getting close to anyone since his mother’s death, he pushes her away and sets out alone to find the fire-raiser – the man he saw on the mountaintop.