Monday, October 5, 2015

"Monster Hunt" Makes it Big

When I got the opportunity to see "Monster Hunt," now the highest grossing Chinese film ever made, I wasn't sure what to expect.  Chinese animation is very inconsistent stuff, and even with a Dreamworks Animation vet, Raman Hui, at the helm, I had my doubts.  I'm not a big fan of films with CGI characters in a live action world in general, after years of watching Hollywood churn out "Alvin & the Chipmunks" and "Scooby Doo" reboots.  On the other hand, "Monster Hunt" is definitely not a Hollywood production.

Long ago the yaogwai, monsters of Chinese legend, had a civil war that left the pregnant former Queen and her remaining supporters on the run in the human world.  With a reward out for the capture of the Queen and her baby, human "monster hunters" and evil monsters are searching for them.  Our hero is Tianying (Jing Boran), a cheerful young man who is the son of a famous monster hunter, but spends his days running a restaurant and doing odd jobs around his village.  He ends up in the middle of a fight between a pair of monsters trying to protect the Queen, Zhu Gao (Eric Tsang) and Pang Ying (Sandra Ng), and the rival monster hunters Luo Gan (Jiang Wu) and Xiaonan (Bai Baihe).  Tianying, after various shenanigans, ends up pregnant with the baby monster, and partnered up with the feisty Xiaonan for a wild adventure.

There was far less animation in "Monster Hunt" than I was expecting, though it is integral to the film.  This is very much a live action martial arts comedy that happens to feature some CGI characters, and it's a pretty good one.  The leads have strong chemistry and their slapstick hijinks are loads of fun.  The action's not particularly impressive, but there are some standout sequences that are very memorable.  The whole thing reminded my of the goofy, but awfully entertaining old fantasy wuxia films I used to watch as a kid, except that the monsters were no longer people in costume, but big, roly-poly cartoon characters.  And while there's some mild gender subversion humor aimed at grown ups, especially all the silliness with the pregnant man, "Monster Hunt" is clearly a kids' film.  It's aimed directly at the same audience that went to see the "Minions" movie in droves this summer.

Is the animation of "Monster Hunt" up to the same level, though?  I have to say no, but they're getting close.  Even allowing for the considerable differences between Chinese and Western aesthetics, the rubbery character designs for the monsters are much more simplified and primitive than anything you'd see in an American theatrical feature today.  You can tell that the Chinese animators had a much smaller budget and had more limitations to work around than comparable American productions.  However, with that in mind, the animation itself is pretty good.  The integration of the animated and live-action elements, particularly involving the monster baby and the various monsters in "human suits," is sophisticated and well executed.  The filmmakers deserve praise for being ambitious and pushing the envelope.  There's a brief scene with a talking door knocker that easily could have been cut out, but they took the trouble to design and animate a complicated character that doesn't appear anywhere else in the movie for it.

I'm not optimistic that the charms of "Monster Hunt" will translate well overseas.  As much as it apes movies like "Shrek," including the now ubiquitous dance number over the closing credits, the animation just isn't quite good enough to be a selling point.  Notably, the opening scene featuring a monster battle is very weak.  It's not until the human characters show up that the film finds its footing.  The movie is also far too family friendly to appeal to the usual martial arts crowd, and probably too silly for the arthouse.  I enjoyed it though, and I'm grateful to have a Chinese language fantasy film that I could actually show to small children, that they might actually sit through.  And I'm sure that the success of "Monster Hunt" will mean more films like it in the future, and continuing advances in the Chinese film industry.  This could be a stepping stone to bigger and better things, and I'm looking forward to them.


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