The Secret Kingdom is a tribute to late-1980s kid adventure-fantasy films like The Goonies, Labyrinth and The Neverending Story — stories about kids on the cusp of adulthood pulled into imaginative realms full of danger and intrigue that reflect the trials and tribulations of growing up.
The reason those Gen-X classics remain popular has always been a mixture of nostalgia and their willingness to embrace the darkness and fear at the heart of childhood. For their young target audience, that generation of kids’ films wasn’t just wish fulfillment; for many, they awed and terrified in equal measure, and the strength of their central metaphors created a cross-generational appeal.
That’s not to say The Secret Kingdom succeeds like those films do, but it tries its heart out. The story follows Peter (Sam Everingham) and Verity (Alyla Browne), two kids who move to a country house with their parents, Viviane (Alice Parkinson) and David (Christopher Gabardi). Their family is grieving and times are tough. Things get even tougher when the two kids are drawn into a fantastical realm beneath the house by an army of armored pangolin who inform them Peter is destined to be king of the below, if he can only defeat the Shroud (Gabrielle Chan), a dark force that wants to end everything.
It’s pretty standard stuff. They’re joined on their adventure by Pling (Darius Williams), a cute pangolin with a big heart, and Mendax (Matt Drummond, who also wrote and directed), a shape-changing reptilian creature who knows more than he’s letting on. Together, their little crew faces off against clockwork-robot people, solves riddles and eventually gets to the heart of what is causing the Shroud’s reign of terror.
Most of the story feels like tribute riffs to the aforementioned classics, told with a visual style at best described as “mid-2000s studio fantasy,” from the era when everyone wanted their own Harry Potter on a budget. Frankly, this is a production on a budget, so it’s hard to knock Drummond and his Australian home team for producing something that often fails to look AAA. The spirit of the piece is pure, and frankly, most kids don’t care that much whether fantasy looks photo-real. Warning to the parents: The Secret Kingdom is at times shockingly low-fi on a visual level, but we both know that doesn’t really matter if you’re throwing something on for your kids to enjoy.
And they probably will enjoy it, even if there are classics they might benefit from seeing at some point. The Secret Kingdom has enough core goodness to make the grade, and Pling is cute and earnest enough to win over the younger audience’s attention. Lessons about bravery, patience and kindness turn up, as well as a big story about grief. This isn’t destined to be a cross-generational hallmark, but it is solid enough work.