American audiences will certainly not confuse this Hong Kong “Hunt,” which quickly became the highest-grossing film ever in its Chinese homeland (though it could quickly be toppled by the rebooted “Star Wars”), with a continuation of the Disney/Pixar “Monsters, Inc.” franchise. For one thing, it combines computer animation with live-action footage, and though the CGI creatures can be cuddly, they’re often decidedly not. And there are aspects of the plot that will definitely seem alien to western sensibilities, striking viewers on this side of the Pacific as strange, even creepy—an element of culture shock is in play here. And yet the picture, directed by Raman Hui (who had a hand in the “Shrek” series), clearly emulates Hollywood models in many ways, and possesses a certain goofy charm even though it might occasionally cause you to cringe.
The premise is that monsters and humans, once enemies, have separated into two closed realms to avoid further trouble. A coup occurs in the monster domain, however, forcing the pregnant queen to flee into the human one in disguise, along with a couple of loyal retainers, Zhugao (Eric Tsang) and Pangying (Sandra Ng). They happen upon villager Tianyin (Jing Boran), a Jerry Lewis type who, according to his wacky grandma (Elaine Jin) descends from a line of great monster hunters; but if so, he hasn’t inherited their skill. Tianyin might become a welcome snack for the queen (monsters eat humans, and the reverse is also true), but her potential meal is interrupted by ambitious rookie monster hunter Xiaolan (Bai Baihe) and her more experienced rival Luo Gang (Jiang Wu). Their martial-arts tussle over proprietary rights to the interlopers leads to a frantic chase during which the exhausted queen transfers the egg containing her soon-to-be-born offspring into wide-eyed Tianyin, who thereupon becomes a pregnant male. Suffice it to say that the birthing and nursing scenes that follow, played for laughs though they are, might cause some raised eyebrows, especially since the kid proves to have a taste for blood.
The upshot is that Tianyin and Xiaolan become unlikely partners in dealing with the little prince, a four-armed little blob with green hair that resembles a large white radish and is dubbed Wuba—and is moreover said to be key to not only the stability of the monster realm but also to amity between monsters and humans. But the little critter’s future is uncertain. Pursued by the monster rebels as well as Luo Gang and other monster hunters, little Wuba eventually winds up in the hands of a pawn shop owner, a cutlery-juggling master chef (Yao Chen) who tries to sauté, fry and boil him, and finally Ge Quinhu (Wallace Chung), an evil epicurean who tries to serve him in his restaurant to a club specializing in exotic dishes. (The little darling’s head is presented to the group on a silver platter, still blinking in wonder, as Ge explains that the prince’s brains are an especial delicacy when scooped out and eaten still warm.)
As should be obvious from this, “Monster Hunt” is a pretty bizarre ride—and we haven’t even mentioned that the action is periodically interrupted by musical numbers of the sappiest, most cloying sort, or that the martial-arts action, while given a humorous feel, is pretty violent stuff. But all the hubbub doesn’t distract from the morals the picture is presenting—a plea for tolerance of those unlike yourself, but also recognition of the importance of family and community. And there’s an occasional moment of sly wit, such as one when Tianyin and Xiaolan—who, of course, become a couple by the end—are zapped into mounting a rescue of Wuba by the sight of a real radish being chopped up.
The cast, of course, has no use for subtlety, and in fairly typical Hong Kong fashion they all play to the rafters, with Jing, in particular, going the bug-eyed route with abandon. But the animation effects are quite good, and the CGI figures are expertly spliced into the live-action footage. The picture does run rather long, but its general big-heartedness makes one tolerant of its longueurs.
So there you have “Monster Hunt”—an oddball mélange of action, slapstick, sentimentality and ghoulishness, all wrapped up into one big, galumphing package. It’s more a curiosity than a delight, but the adventurous might want to give the sweet-and-sour dish a try.
A note: this review is based on the original version of the film, in Mandarin with English subtitles and running 117 minutes. The American distributor has apparently dubbed the picture and trimmed it to 104 minutes for American release.