Thursday, June 08, 2023

The Secret Kingdom, with Pangolins

If ever there was an animal in need of a hero, it would be the pangolin. Thanks to the black market in Mainland China (where their meat is considered a delicacy and their scales are a staple of “Chinese medicine”), the scaly mammal remains one of the world’s most endangered animals. These pangolins residing in a subterranean Fraggle Rock-like fantasy world face an even graver peril. However, young Peter Drawmer just might be the hero their prophecies foretold in screenwriter-director Matt Drummond’s The Secret Kingdom, which opens tomorrow in New York.

According to the prologue fairy tale, the two worlds were once connected, but when the young, brilliant king died, they were split apart. Drawmer always lived in our world above, but when his family moved to his father’s drafty old ancestral home in the countryside, the fantasy world below starts calling him. Then, that night, a hole opens in his room, swallowing his bratty little sister Verity, so he reluctantly dives in after her.

Down below, the Pangolin oracle immediately hails Drawmer as the foretold king, but the Pangolin general is skeptical. Regardless, if Drawmer is their savior, he hasn’t come a minute too soon. The Pangolin soon find themselves under attack from the forces of darkness. Peter and Verity get cut off from the rest of the Pangolins, but they still have Pling, who is well-versed in the prophesies, as well as epic songs that serve as the pangolins’ maps for navigating their fantasy world.

The pangolins and many of the other fantastical creatures are surprisingly well-crafted.
Secret Kingdom might be ripping off the Henson workshop’s greatest hits, but it does so surprisingly well. The fantasy quest, involving pieces of a puzzle Drawmer must assemble to restore the fantasy world’s internal clock, is serviceable enough. The problem is both Drawmer siblings are way too young (and way too passive) for a fantasy so transparently inspired by The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. They just aren’t right for the film.

Still, there is some very cool design work. Any film produced in the mid-1980s that looked like
Secret Kingdom would still be legendary today. Admittedly, Drummond over-achieves on his upstart budget, but at this point, his needs stronger characters and greater archetypal depth.

Yet, it is hard to root against pangolins. They desperately need a break. It is not their fault some fraudsters claim their scales can cure impotency.
Secret Kingdom is a good-looking film, but it needed to be aged up. Frustratingly, it just isn’t enough to recommend, when The Secret Kingdom opens this Friday (6/9) in New York, at the Cinema Village.