Nice CGI, but a monstrous plot

Monster hunter Bai Baihe in the hit film.
Monster hunter Bai Baihe in the hit film.PHOTO: SONY PICTURES SINGAPORE

Forget the dinosaurs in Jurassic World - another monster has been chomping up the box office, this time in China.

In just 10 days, this fantasy flick has taken over the China box office to become the country's highest- grossing Chinese film ever, with more than 1.268 billion yuan (S$280.2 million) in takings.

Perhaps Chinese moviegoers felt like they finally had a CGI-heavy film they could be proud of, given the competency of the computer graphics featured in this animation-cum-live action hybrid. The roly-poly monsters here, especially baby Wuba, should be cute and cuddly enough to please younger audiences, even if they sometimes feel like a rip-off of the alien in Stephen Chow's CJ7 (2008).

Visually, then, this is certainly a huge improvement on the mostly awful CGI films that have come out of China in recent years, such as Gordon Chan's The Four (2012) and The Monkey King (2014) starring Donnie Yen.

After all, Monster Hunt director Raman Hui boasts much experience in the animation world, having co-directed Shrek The Third (2007), as well as worked on several other major projects under the Dreamworks Animation banner, such as Antz (1998) and Madagascar (2005).



    117 minutes/Now showing/ 2.5/5 stars

    The story: A civil war has erupted in the monster world, driving a scared and pregnant Monster Queen to run off to hide among humans to protect her foetus. She meets the goofy but kind-hearted villager Tianyin (Jing Boran), who suddenly finds himself the surrogate father of the royal monster baby. That does not sit well with fellow villager and professional monster hunter Xiaonan (Bai Baihe), who plots to steal the baby and sell it for money and glory.

What the Hong Kong-born, Los Angeles-based Hui failed to pick up from his time with the big Hollywood studio is the ability to pen a strong story, which makes this work inspired by Chinese mythological text Classic Of Mountains And Seas a difficult one to translate to audiences beyond China.

Tone and plot are all over the place and none of the characters - monster or otherwise - have enough depth to make you care about them. Never mind the heartstring-tugging powers of Pixar films, this does not even have the looney kinetic energy and rollicking fun of, say, Penguins Of Madagascar (2014), to keep the action going along quickly enough.

Most of the supporting human roles, played by A-listers such as Sandra Ng, Eric Tsang and Tang Wei, are also completely unnecessary. Tang's mahjong-obsessed shopkeeper role is so pointless that it feels as if it were squeezed in just so her name could be tacked on to the movie poster for marketing purposes.

Possessing all style and little substance is a problem that is plaguing many big-budget China films these days.

Hui has shown potential in China's ability to turn over decent animation work - it is time film-makers like him pair that with an equally arresting script, so that the world's second-largest cinema market can roll out classics on a par with the best of Hollywood animation.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2015, with the headline 'Nice CGI, nut a monstrous plot'. Print Edition | Subscribe