In “Monster Hunt,” the protagonists are greenish ogres with mushy hearts — not surprisingly, since this jolly live-action/animated Chinese period fantasy is helmed by Raman Hui, the Hong Kong-born animation supervisor who was involved with the genesis of the “Shrek” franchise. Although this yarn about a humans-vs.-monsters struggle to capture a monster princeling will seem too gooey and elementary for fans of more brain-teasing family fare like “Inside Out,” its technical wizardry and zippy, Hollywood-influenced storytelling smarts dwarf any brand of tyke-skewing entertainment China has ever come up with. Small wonder that domestic B.O. has been monstrous: To date, it’s earned more than $217 million, making it the biggest Chinese hit ever.
One of the most costly undertakings by Hong Kong’s Edko Films (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Lust, Caution”), the production hit a major snag last year when Taiwanese male lead Kai Ko (“You Are the Apple of My Eye,” the “Tiny Times” series) was arrested for smoking marijuana and banned from screens and showbiz activities by mainland authorities. Ko was replaced by Jing Boran (“Love and Lost,” “Rise of the Legend”), with reshoots allegedly doubling the initial $40 million budget. Still, the film’s grosses have more than made up for the setback, proving that toon monsters are the real stars here anyway.
What makes “Monster Hunt” so tyke-friendly is its easily digestible story arc, refreshingly devoid of Confucian morality, educational historical background or nationalistic grandstanding — in short, everything that makes most mainland children’s films such a yawn. Stylistically, the film blends Western demon-slaying elements, Japanese yokai folklore and even a distant echo of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” into a fanciful Chinese setting, beefing it with up robust martial-arts action with an eye toward holding the attention of adult viewers.
In a mythic kingdom, mortals and monsters who once fought each other now stay put in their separate domains. Their uneasy truce is disrupted when a coup in the monster land forces its pregnant queen to go on the run with her two loyal but inept retainers, Zhugao and his rotund wife, Fat Ying. Foreseeing that pandemonium will spill over to the humans’ realm, monster-hunt bureau chief Ge (Wallace Chung) puts up a handsome bounty for the unborn heir.
Evading the pursuit of a ferocious rebel general (a cuddly variation of a T-rex) and long-out-of-work monster hunters, Zhugao and Fat Ying take refuge in Yongning Village, disguising themselves as humans (played by Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng, respectively). Unexpectedly, the famished Monster Queen develops a craving for village sentinel Tianyin (Jing Boran), even though he looks nothing like a gastronomic delight. Although his dotty grandma (Elaine Jin) keeps reminding him he’s descended from an illustrious line of monster hunters, Tianyin is a dork whose only ambition is to cook and sew, and he proves utterly defenseless.
To the monsters’ chagrin, snack time is interrupted by Xiaolan (Bai Baihe), a low-ranking monster hunter who’s after the bounty, but she is in turn trounced by veteran Luo Gang (Jiang Wu, brother of helmer-actor Jiang Wen). In the ensuing chase, Tianyin becomes an accidental carrier of the monster fetus, his “pregnancy” giving rise to off-the-wall gender-bending gags. The yarn picks up with the “virgin birth” of the monster prince, whose baby-babble spurs his surrogate dad to name him “Wuba.” Resembling a squishy radish crossed with a cuttlefish, Wuba will charm any tot infatuated with bouncy rubber balls, while a certain oral trick of his may even tickle adults.
Alas, money-grubbing Xiaolan is impervious to Wuba’s charms and sells him to a pawn-shop owner (Tang Wei, making almost no impression), who instantly turns him in at a five-star eatery called Heaven Restaurant. In a kitchen scene sizzling with Rabelaisian revelry, monsters dexterously dodge a siege of woks, steamers and sashimi knives; Yao Chen, playing a master chef, comedienne and “Weibo queen,” demonstrates the sophistication and barbarity of Chinese cuisine with a balletic act as high-spirited as it is spine-chilling. The climactic banquet builds to a cracking showdown that not only unleashes the protags’ inner reserves, but offers the comforting notion that neither monsters nor humans are as fiendish as they seem to be. The ending sprinkles in plenty of hints for a sequel — highly foreseeable, given the pic’s phenomenal success.
Jing, who has so far been a sturdy foil for showier leads like Eddie Peng in “Rise of the Legend” or Huang Xiaoming in “The Guillotines,” trudges along with little charisma in the earlier scenes, but perks up as soon as Bai arrives on the scene. With her pixie-like charm, Bai is the spark that fuels their larky courtship. The narrative is at times bogged down by celebrity comedians and A-list stars jostling for attention in what are essentailly glorified cameo appearances; the most gratuitous of these are Yan Ni and Bao Jianfeng, causing a pointless hubbub as an infertile couple.
The film is supposedly inspired by “Classic of Mountains and Seas” (“Shan Hai Jing”), a 206 B.C. Chinese tome in which the monsters look like blowfish that have swallowed dinosaurs. But Hui’s artistic input no doubt helped inspire a creature-design aesthetic that’s recognizably Asian, yet spunkier and less parochial than most mainland animated films, with their slavish reproductions of classical Chinese templates. Thanks to high-caliber visual effects — supervised by Jason Snell (the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), among others — the interaction between the animated and live-action characters is seamless, as are the monsters’ dramatic transformations, especially when beanpole-like Zhugao and plump Fat Ying turn into a stumpy man and a slim femme, respectively.
Yohei Taneda’s production design blends ethereal inkbrush landscapes with period sets that range from mundane to spectacular. The tussles between humans are choreographed by Ku Huen-chiu with snappy, cartoonish timing, but remain bound by Hong Kong high-wire stunt conventions. Leon Ko’s score is jam-packed with pop tunes that work a spell as kiddie singalong, but may drive foreign viewers up the wall with their sappiness. The film is being released in 2D except in China, where a 3D conversion is also available.