It’s monster love for “Monster Hunt”! A live action-CGI animation meld courtesy of director Raman Hui, it’s easy to see why “Monster Hunt” is the biggest grossing film of all time in China. (Yes, it topped “Fast & Furious 7″.) It’s a pure delight! And now, this wonderful blend of history, fantasy, animation, live-action and Wuba, the cutest little monster ever, makes its way east across the Pacific to the United States.
Written by Alan Yuen, “Monster Hunt” takes place in a fantasy world filled with the mysteries of the ancients, a world where monsters and mortals exist, but don’t co-exist. Monsters may rule the world, but a delicate balance of peace is maintained by the mortals humans living within their own kingdom. But as with any societal structure, there are good monsters and bad monsters, good mortals and bad and here we have bad monsters hunting the current monster queen who is carrying the future king, a monster king destined to make an everlasting peace between the species.
Knowing her days are numbered before she is caught, the Queen transfers her monster baby egg to a human man she encounters in the forest during an attack by evil monsters. Mayor of a small local village, Tianyin is a bit on the clutzy, goofy, hapless side of life, so when he is suddenly “pregnant”, the hilarity seen with his usual foibles, escalates exponentially. Alongside Tianyin is Xiaolan, a monster hunter. She too is seeking the as yet unborn baby.
As to be expected, for non-stop laughter and action, especially once Tianyin goes into labor and gives birth to the cutest little monster imaginable – Wuba. While Xiaolan wants to protect Wuba on her way to collect a reward for his capture, Tianyin only grows closer to him, wanting to protect him because he is a life that should be saved.
As the trio make their way through Ancient China and the monster world and mortal worlds cross paths, we are treated to oh-so-adorable “family” moments as well as some adrenaline-fueled martial arts disciplines, all of which are so eye-popping and engaging to entertain even the youngest moviegoer. Along the way, Xiaolan does battle against fellow monster bounty hunter Luo Gan, and we learn the history of the now defunct Monster Hunt Bureau, as well as meeting Ge Qianhu who, under guise of being the owner of the most palatial restaurant/spa in the province, may have secrets designed to destroy the peace and drive up his profits. Hmmm.
A climactic fight within Ge Qianhu’s restaurant is a visual spectacle showcasing not only the high caliber VFX courtesy of Jason Snell, but giving all the characters fantastical moments to soar through the VFX and superlative martial arts action choreography by Ku Huen Chiu. And let’s just say, be on the lookout for Tianyin’s grandmother. She’s got a few tricks up her sleeve.
The monsters themselves – especially Wuba – are for the most part just adorable. If this film were in the hands of Disney, guaranteed there would be little Wuba monster merchandising. Great thought is evident with the detail of the monsters; all the good monsters – even the adults – rounded, soft-edges, like a roly poly baby, non-threatening and harmless. Friendly. Bad monsters have the claws and hard edges. Makes for a nice subtle tonal distinction worked into the visuals. Interesting is that some of the monster designs harken to other film animation designs of late, such as “Home”, “Escape From Planet Earth” and even “Strange Magic”, especially with the eyes; thus, the wonderful emotional expressiveness that the film achieves.
Yuen’s script is imaginative and provides strong foundation for story, although some of the antics that we watch unfold go off the rails. While in many films, that would be a bad thing, despite some confusion at times, it works within the structure of “Monster Hunt”. Moral aspects of the story are strong, celebrating family, respect, community and tolerance. Characters are all fun and entertaining, but let’s face it, the star of the show is Wuba.
Director Hui’s animation background serves “Monster Hunt” well as animation is a seamless meld with live-action and the CGI imagery is dynamic, clean, crisp and creative.
Although many of the cast are unknown to US audiences, for anyone that sees “Monster Hunt”, you will find yourself taking notice of each and look for them in other films. There is an engaging chemistry between Wu Jiang’s bounty hunter Luo and Baihe Bai’s Xiaolan, as well as between Bai and Jing Boran’s Tianyin, the latter of whom is endearing with his bumbling fumbling charm. Performances and relationship dynamics are resonant, carrying beyond some of the silly fantasy and fun and into believability. Elaine Jin as the Grandmother is simply a kick in the ass. Hilarious! And her facial expressions and physicality just buttresses the character. Standout are Hong Kong comedy stars Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng who will have you in stitches as Zhugao and Pangying, monster guardians (in human disguise). And kudos to the entire cast who execute many truly memorable slapstick comedic moments.
Production values on the whole are strong. Cinematography by Anthony Pun is beautiful and melds well with the animation. Use of color is lush, rich – especially in the climactic restaurant scene. Notable is also the pops of color with the monsters. The colors used with the monsters is not duplicated with human costume or decor.
And it would be remiss to not mention the work of production designer Yohei Taneda. Exquisite. From the design and construction of a small village to the majesty of the palatial restaurant and ethereal mysticism of the forests and places along the journey, Taneda is masterful. (Cinema fans may find it interesting to check out some more of Taneda’s work in theatres now with “The Hateful Eight.”)
One caveat though. There are two versions showing in theatres – one is dubbed in English, the other in Mandarin with sub-titles. Having seen both versions and throughly enjoying both, I would recommend the Mandarin version. Unfortunately, because of the very nature of mouth and facial movements associated with pronunciation and cadence with each language, the English dubbing is not the best in the world and at times becomes distracting whereas the Mandarin version is uninterrupted and non-distracting.
Wuba is a monster you’re just gonna “wub”. No denying it. Monster love for “Monster Hunt”!
Directed by Raman Hui
Written by Alan Yuen
Cast: Baihe Bai, Boran Jing, Wu Jiang, Elaine Jin, Eric Tsang, Sandra Ng