L.O.R.D.: Legends of Ravaging DynastiesReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/03/16 14:06:25
I could have sworn that I'd seem a trailer or stills or some sort of image for "L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties" at some point, and yet it somehow took me by surprise that the big-budget Chinese fantasy was all motion-captured animation akin to Robert Zemeckis's "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf", and not even nominally live-action. The technology has improved enough in the last few years that this isn't necessarily a huge impediment to enjoying the film, at least not the way it was before. The story being a huge pile of nonsense, on the other hand, doesn't help at all.It starts in a small village in the country of Ashland, where lowly 18-year-old waiter Chiling ("Cheney" Chen Xuedong) is serving tea to a party of magicians hunting a dangerous Soul Beast, his eye particularly caught drawn to Shen Yin (Yang Mi) before a wave of cold starts freezing the entire restaurant, and the pair find themselves dealing with a much larger monster than previously thought. Elsewhere, in the capital city, the three mysterious Priests are giving tasks to their Dukes, the country's most powerful magician. Duke VII, "Silver" Yin Chen (Kris Wu Yifan), is to find his new apprentice, while Duke V, Shan Feng (Yan Yikuan), is to kill the treasonous Duke II, "Dark" You Ming (William Chan Wai-ting). Neither notice that Duke IV, Tereya (Amber Kuo Caijie), seems a little too pleased with these assignments, at least not until Chiling has been identified as Silver's apprentice and he, Disciple V "Lotus" Lian Quan (Fan Bingbing), and Disciple VI Princess Yuka (Jelly Lin Yin), are all sent to retrieve the same horcrux as their primary weapon.
There are more of these guys running around - even with only seven Dukes worth one apprentice each, there's also a mysterious, wraith-like teenager (Emma Wu) at the center of the mystery, and it turns out that these Soul Beasts can be tamed and have their own personalities. There are so many of these magic-users that the civilians are crowded out of the picture very quickly, making things frustratingly abstract as writer/director Guo Jingming loses track of what the entertaining parts of a fantasy world are: While the stakes Chiling, Silver, and the rest start fighting for may actually be higher than tracking down rogue monsters, they're harder to grasp, and by the end of the movie, the Soul Beasts are just things running around in the background. A mythology has been stitched out of what the audience does learn, but when one of the Dukes starts talking about how their battle could threaten a nearby city, it doesn't have the urgency that he is trying to get across.
Not that fantasies must necessarily be primarily concerned their world's everyday people - folks connect to the Harry Potter series despite there rarely being a muggle to be found, after all - but if they're ultimately going to be about internal conflicts among a group of powerful people, those folks and their relationships should be interesting, and Guo isn't particularly good at that. Folks seem to ally or fight based upon the immediate needs of the script rather than who they have been to that point, and while there's a neat idea to the special bonds between master and apprentice in this movie, it never really gets a chance to play with how some of them are lovers, two are brother and sister, and and one pairs a daughter with her absent father. It seems like this should heighten the drama, but it seldom manages to.
(That said, there is something enjoyably subversive about how Silver informs Chiling that connecting their magic makes them feel something like a crush, initially, especially since the locus of this seems to be at the base of the spine and Chiling often looks like he's farting his Soul Beast out. The looks Chiling and Silver give each other and their instant connection are the closest thing I can recall to a Mainland Chinese film actually having queer characters, and I wonder if Guo was trying to see just how much butt stuff the censor board would let him get away with.)
The cast does their best with the material, though, and though it's sometimes hard to tell how much of a performance comes from the actor and how much from the animators in a movie like this, something in this alchemy does allow Fan Bingbing's Lotus to move to the center of the movie as she needs to, even for someone reading subtitles. Doing this sort of work must be tough - over-emoting would look more like a cartoon than the filmmakers want, but underplaying would not be much better - and it works out better for some of the cast than others, with Cheney Chen being right up there with Fan, playing especially well off Jelly Lin. The pair aren't given great material, and, again, it's hard to say how much of the physicality of Yuka is Lin's, but her petulant take on the character won't much disappoint the folks she impressed in The Mermaid.
The animation and mocap is pretty decent, although less so when things like facial expressions take center stage (Chiling trying to wink conspiratorially at someone becomes a demonstration of how far to go before the technology is totally ready more than him being kind of a goof). It does hold up pretty well where action is concerned, with the choreography by Xiong Xin XIn translating to 3D digital animation smoothly, with the third dimension being used fairly well. In going for fairly realistic-looking human figures and a world that fits them, L.O.R.D. can't quite go for the flights of pure fancy that other animated films can, but the filmmakers do all right.
Mostly, though, things just get held up by the plot - Guo reveals his world at a relatively steady pace, and as much as it doesn't confuse, the movie is almost over by the time the audience knows everything it needs to, and he'll mislead the audience a air amount, threatening danger but dropping it. He creates a fantasy world with all kinds of superpowers but is not terribly creative with his action - lots of people get skewered in the shoulder by magic spikes - and never giving the audience a feel for what is truly dangerous to these beings. Worst of all, he seems to have envisioned this as the first part of a series without really giving it a climax of its own - everything important to this movie's finale seems to either have happened before Chiling arrived on the scene or points to the next quest.To give the filmmakers their due, they have created a potentially exciting fantasy setting and the animation isn't nearly as trapped in the uncanny valley as many previous films made this way. This particular story doesn't seem to be the best introduction to the setting, and Guo never really gets the most out of it. The ambition is impressive,but the movie needs more than that.
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