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Mojin: The Worm Valley
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by Jay Seaver

"Something of a budget sequel, but still kind of fun."
3 stars

There's a certain look to the actors who replace stars when a series goes from theaters to video or television (or, in this case, gets a budget cut): A little smaller, a little more blandly good-looking, wearing someone else's costumes and hairstyles, neither of which quite suits them. Every single person in "The Worm Valley" has this look, as does the film itself, and it probably doesn't matter whether you've seen the previous "Mojin" movie or not; this one's going to feel like a lesser copy of something.

It seems to pick up roughly where the previous film left off, with grave-robber Hu Bayi (Cai Heng), archeologist Shirley Yang (Gu Xuan), and their whole team cursed to die early deaths for having retrieved the Dragon Bone Tome, though that helpfully points the way to the Mu Chen Orb and which, when combined with it, will lift the curse upon them. So off the team - including "Fatty" Wang Kaixuan (Yu Heng), "Gold Tooth" JinYa (Ma Yuke), Professor Sun (Cheng Taishen), and Zhou Linglong (Chen Yuai), daughter of their benefactor (Tang Zhiwei) - goes to rural China, where the clues suggest that the Tomb of Xiangwang is hidden on the other side of an underground river.

It's not a bad group, really, although clearly a step down from the all-star cast Wuershan had playing the same characters three years ago in terms of fame. Cai Heng and Gu Xuan have nice chemistry as Bayi and Shirley, and Yu Heng has a sort of eager charm as Kaixuan (although, for a guy they call "Fatty", he kind of seems more burly than anything). Chen Yuai is doing her level best to be the enthusiastic kid sister of the group, and Cheng Taishen is doing a fair world-weary. Tuo Zonghua chews some scenery as the guy allegedly driven insane on the same quest. They're not wooden or mugging, but all seemingly trying to hit the spot where these characters seem familiar and comfortable rather than putting a stamp on them.

It doesn't help that they don't really have a story of their own to play out. This apparently picks up fairly directly from the last one (it's been a while for me), and there's not a new relationship or arrangement of characters to be had; everything is just the last episode being continued a bit. There's not even a proper villain to give them something to define themselves against; they're just a steady ensemble meant to be familiar, and it leaves little chance to spark. It makes the moments when they're supposed to have some sort of dramatic internal conflict seem contrived and forced, and ultimately not amount to anything even if someone comes out worse for wear.

They're riders on a roller coaster, and the film is admittedly okay on that count. It's not quite a whole movie of Indiana Jones running from the rolling boulder, but that's what it's going for, with giant creatures, underground rivers, literal cliffhangers, and flying fish to contend with. Director Fei Xing has built this movie for giant 3D screens, with the camera placed low and tending to introduce a new location by swooping around to explore for a bit. It's got a floating island straight out of Avatar and multiple ceremonial chambers that actual archaeologists would spend years cataloguing centimeter by centimeter but which are just going to get smashed up with these guys on the case. I'll bet it's a hoot in one of those theaters with the motion seats and 4D effects.

It's not going to play that way in very many places outside China, though, and will probably play as less exciting on video or streaming than in a theater: Capable enough, but lacking the blockbuster ambition of 2015's two very different movies based upon the "Ghost Blows Out the Light" novels ("Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe" and "Mojin: The Lost Legend"). "The Worm Valley" is not quite the minimum movie necessary for franchise service, but it's very much a lesser extension that takes a lot of what made the previous movies exciting for granted.

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originally posted: 01/07/19 09:46:52
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Directed by
  Xing Fei

Written by
  Xing Fei
  Haowan Gu

  Heng Cai
  Xuan Gu
  Yuai Chen
  Taishen Cheng
  Heng Yu

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