“Don’t think too much!” are the very first words in Raman Hui’s new Chinese-language, live-action/CG hybrid family adventure. And you’ve scarcely had time to wonder if that might be a cynical advance apologia for a potentially shoddy sequel to a wildly popular original, before you find yourself obeying. “Monster Hunt 2” is so perfectly good-natured and so utterly nonsensical that it makes not-thinking-about-it basically an act of self-preservation, for which, bless its bouncing, gurgling, flolloping heart. Before the brief Bollywood musical-style opening has even concluded, with the brightly clad dancers joyously wriggling out of their “human outfits” to reveal the tubby, blubbery, sunny-dispositioned “monsters” they are underneath, the only part of the viewer’s brain that would light up a CT scan is the Awww! cortex. These creatures are adorable.
Most adorable of all is the film’s star, Wuba. A pudgy little cross between Baby Groot, a Porg, and a stress ball topped with a tuft of watercress hair, he is an actual infant to boot, so double aww! Plus, he speaks in a series of delighted squeaks and giggles that make the average Gerber Baby sound like a 40-a-day smoker who spends all day at the dog track. Wuba, of course, is not just any monster, but a princeling, and one who, being born of human parents, may actually hold the key to uniting the long-divided Monster and Human realms. Not that that narrative gets advanced a single inch in “Monster Hunt 2”: When the film that launched the franchise broke all box office records in China, the second largest film market in the world, you know you’re going to be around a while. Hui and new writers Jack Ng, Sunny Chan and Su Liang are content to give the series mythology a rest in favor of what is, if you burrow through the pee gags, subplots, and wire stunts, a simple family-reunion story.
Wuba’s parents Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) and Tianyin (Jing Boran) regret their well-intentioned decision, made at the end of the last film, to send Wuba to the Monster Realm to be with his own kind. They set out to find him, at the same time that Wuba, narrowly escaping capture by the evil Monster King, suddenly finds himself on the run, too. Happily, Wuba befriends the resourceful BenBen, a monster who can camouflage himself into invisibility and whose sweet dimples make him look a bit like Woody Harrelson when he smiles. BenBen works as a general factotum to scallywag gambler Tu, played gamely by Tony Leung Chiu-wai. The role of Tu, who at one point sports a prosthetic nose and at another wears a Tony the Tiger-style plushie suit and gets sawed in half by a magician, might seem a bit of a backslide for the Leung we all swooned over in those smoky “In the Mood for Love” doorways. But the actor has a grand old time regardless — and you know, he actually works that tiger costume.
The story is sweeter and gooier this time out; there’s a lot less monster-eating for one thing. And the first film’s most lastingly subversive element — that it was young Tianyin who “gave birth” to Wuba and not his skilled monster-hunter missus Xiaolan — has settled into a groove of gentle gender-comedy. “Treat him like you would any woman, that’s what I do!” Xiaolan demands of the doctor they visit to cure Tianyin’s postpartum depression. “Okay,” the doctor tells him, “It’s all in your head!”
The visual effects work is miles better than in first entry, in which sometimes the live actors and CG characters seemed less to be sharing the same space than bellowing across an impassable Uncanny Valley. And here the human actors meet their pixel-based counterparts at least halfway in terms of broadness of performance. Indeed, sometimes the monsters, who own most of the dignity and all the emotional beats, look faintly embarrassed by the overt cartoonishness of the gurning, pratfalling humans.
Special mention should also go to Yee Chung Man’s fabulous, semi-mythological costuming, and to the production design team of Lee Kin Wai, Guillaume Aretos and Yohei Taneda for the vine-strewn, lavender-carpeted Monster Realm, the workshop of the lovestruck weapons-maker where it’s always snowing popped rice, and the halls of the sinister Monster Hunting Bureau that land somewhere between Gringotts and Trump Tower for gilded excess. “Monster Hunt 2” will of course bring franchise fans back to the theater (it already has, garnering the biggest opening day of all time in China). But it also deserves to recruit some new ones, among younger kids and anyone not so enculturated into Disney-esque narrative formula that they can’t enjoy an anarchically silly, amiably bonkers foreign-language kids film for what it so triumphantly is: an excuse to not think too much.