Review by Justin Goodman
You could say Raman Hui, in his directorial debut, took lessons from the children’s films he’s worked on as an animator. While these credentials are solid—including animation on Shrek, Madagascar, and How to Train Your Dragon’s TV spinoff, Dragons: Riders of Berk—it’s discomforting that the last director role he had (in the animation department) was with the short lived Father of the Pride. Before that, the critically panned 1994 remake of the much-beloved 1951 Angels in the Outfield. Similarly, Monster Hunt is a film that tries very hard to be more than it is. Despite this inability to overcome, the end result is still a semi-fun if mostly predictable film.
Much like Shrek, Monster Hunt is the story of fantastical CGI creatures forced into apartheid because of cultural (if not superficial) misunderstandings. That’s all backstory though. Once the king dies, the real story begins, the pregnant queen is forced to flee from a rival political faction wanting to kill the unborn prince. In the human world, monsters are hunted. So the queen, in the land of the humans, inevitably dies after transferring her egg into an unwilling and unwitting young mayor, Song Tianyin. Once Song is impregnated an amateur monster hunter, Huo Xiaolin, tasks herself with watching over him until he gives birth, expecting to profit from the sale of the baby prince. Needless to say, the opening, with its various deaths, makes Monster Hunt seem grittier and more complex then it ends up being. Instead, the prince is born and Song and Huo unexpectedly find themselves parents in a wuxia romantic buddy comedy.
Westerners tend to be familiar with wuxia only through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s Oscar win in 2000. Yes, it’s magical martial arts set in ancient China. More so, it’s a hero seeking redress of a wrong. Think The Magnificent Seven or, its inspiration, Seven Samurai. Monster Hunt mostly maintains this standard; hero, abandoned by legendary father, following an ancient prophesy, sets off on an adventure both against others and themself, inevitably leading to a confrontation with a malignant evil. Where the story veers from this arc, it veers slightly. The presentation, though, is an altogether different experience. Song is a bumbling clown—Drunken Master without the master—who, before being impregnated, shows his inability to lead and avows a desire to sew and cook forever. Huo, belligerently sarcastic and ruthless, has the authority and duplicity of a typical anti-hero who will inevitably come to terms with her baggage.
But all of it is just that, presentation. Much like Boran Jing and Baihe Bai’s acting, Song’s pregnancy (and disability, a fake leg whose significance is reduced to one visual gag early on) could just as well be Huo’s, and Huo’s heroism just as well Song’s. On the upside, the uncanny elements of wuxia combat fit snugly with the assortment of CGI monsters—although all of them are too baby-faced to be substantially threateningly—and what is seen is smoothly animated and exciting, flecked with child-oriented fart jokes, the authentically fun moment when Song goes into labor, and a questionably adult scene involving a monster seducing a human in a way as unsettling as when a cartoon Jessica Rabbit seduces Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. All this will be familiar to those who have watched the films Raman Hui has worked on. There are merely facial differences between them, even if the monster prince inevitably named Wuba is the most adorable one yet.
As far as fantasy goes (as far as PG-13 goes, for that matter), Monster Hunt offers nothing more nor nothing less than what is already out there. The characters are simple, the story familiar, the plot twists unsurprising, the jokes well-worn, and the cast undistinguished. Other than its unexpected popularity as the highest-grossing film in China, and the following backlash over inflated ticket numbers, there is only the quality of its CGI to draw you in. It’s kind of a Chinese Avatar; beloved because it looks good, forgettable because it’s not.