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Monster Hunt
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by Jay Seaver

"Monster hit in China, interesting oddity in America."
3 stars

I've read that the English-dubbed version of "Monster Hunt" (releasing at about the same time the original Mandarin version hits the United States) cuts a few scenes, including one where dog meat is seen offered for sale in a street market, and while I get cutting that from a movie in large part aimed at kids, it does seem like an arbitrary line to draw, considering who is casually eating what (or trying to) at various points of this movie. This is not a complaint - considering that much of the recent influx of Chinese movies into America theaters has been terribly generic romantic comedies and nostalgic dramas, a genuinely weird family fantasy is actually a nice change of pace, whether from Chinese or Hollywood fare.

Early on, restaurateur Lord Ge (Wallace Chung Hong-leung) tells us that while humans and other creatures used to live together, their lands were separated, and the Monster Hunting Bureau was so successful in driving them out of human lands that many people in its medieval Chinese setting don't believe there is any such thing as monsters. A civil war in the monster kingdom has driven the widowed, pregnant monster queen and her bodyguards (Eric Tsang Chi-wai & Sandra Ng Kwun-yu) into the human world, where they encounter Song Tianyin (Jing Boran) - the disrespected mayor of Yongning Village and the son of a supposedly-great monster hunter - and Huo Xiaolan (Bai Baihe), a young monster hunter looking to create a reputation. Circumstances lead to the pair winding up with the newborn prince of monsters (whom they eventually name "Wuba"), and while Xiaolan is initially all about collecting the bounty, they find themselves getting kind of attached to this cute little bloodsucking beastie that looks like a radish with tentacles.

Despite not necessarily looking state-of-the-art by Hollywood standards, Monster Hunt became the highest-grossing film of all time in China last summer partly on the strength of its CGI creature effects, which are fairly strong - the opening scene of a big monster battle may have the videogame feel that often comes from trying to absolutely fill a 3D space with creatures, but as the film goes on and the presence of monsters isn't quite so overwhelming, the style meshes pretty well with the live-action. The designs are simple but emotive, and even the meaner monsters are fun to look at. The effect is kind of what a live-action Pokemon movie might look like, which isn't a bad target. The rendering isn't quite up to Hollywood standards (the lighting is a little too even), but it works well enough.

It probably helps that director Raman Hui came up through animation, so he knows his slapstick (and given that he spent much of his career at DreamWorks, it's not surprising that he and his crew use 3D very well). He and writer Alan Yuen Kam-lun set up a lot of cartoon situations, from broad slapstick to musical numbers, and do a pretty good job of executing along with the cast; there's a lot of goofiness that doesn't just look like people flailing against stuff that will be added in later, and even when things shift to Tianyin and Xiaolin on a rescue mission, the action is plenty silly and giggle-worthy.

A lot of credit for that goes to its stars. Bai Baihe and Jing Boran are given a script that takes reversal of gender roles to quite frankly crazy extremes - it's one thing that Bai plays the reckless bounty hunter and Jing's Tianyin excels at cooking and sewing, but the pregnancy material is downright bonkers - and they dive in. Bai's energetic performance almost threatens to bulldoze Jing, but they've got the sort of chemistry that makes it work, and adding Elaine Jin as Tianyin's sword-wielding-but-senile grandmother makes it even more fun. Hong Kong comedians Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng are a lot of fun as the monster queen's bodyguards, and while Westerners might not recognize that Tang Wei and Yao Chen in what amount to guest-starring roles toward the end are a big deal, they get a fair amount of laughs in their scenes.

Still, as much as the movie's slapstick can be a lot of fun, it can also be a lot meaner than what American audiences are used to. It's easy to miss cues that Ge is a running a restaurant early on, and a lot of the jokes come from one group being quite willing to eat the other, or the chef trying very hard to kill Wuba only to find him basically indestructible (my head went to Who Framed Roger Rabbit? a couple of times). While some some in the audience may enjoy this dark-ish sort of comedy, it's not exactly the sort of thing kids here see in their cartoons these days, even if it is fairly common elsewhere. It's funny, but know your kid if that's who you're going with.

I must admit, I had fun with this one - it's colorful, fast-moving, and has a pair of very easy-to-like actors in the leading roles. It's the kind of foreign kids' movie that can be enjoyably flabbergasting to American adults, executed with enough style that there won't be much laughing at its relative cheapness.

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originally posted: 01/25/16 06:36:11
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Directed by
  Raman Hui

Written by
  Alan Yuen

  Baihe Bai
  Boran Jing
  Wu Jiang
  Elaine Jin
  Wallace Chung
  Eric Tsang

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