Last summer, Monster Hunt briefly made headlines around the world when it helped the Chinese box office break a bunch of records, eventually becoming the biggest moneymaker in that country’s history (even narrowly edging out the then-only-recently-crowned champ, Furious Seven). All that sounds impressive — and it is, on one level — but China, at least until recently, was building something like 15 new movie screens a day, so none of these records is bound to last long. It is fascinating, however, to finally see Monster Hunt, which makes its Stateside debut this week, and to discover just what kind of movie so apparently captured Chinese audiences’ imaginations. Because it’s a decidedly strange one.
Directed by Raman Hui, who co-directed Shrek the Third, the film mixes heavy CG animation with live-action, though it feels at times like the whole thing should have been animated. It begins in a world populated by monsters, where a civil war is raging: The opening vista, populated with hordes of running, flying, fighting monsters, is wild, vast, and thoroughly artificial. A pregnant Monster Queen, whose offspring we’re told will bring some sort of harmony to the monster and human realm, is desperately trying to flee the new Monster King. She finds herself in the human world, where she impregnates (yes) a hapless young small-town mayor named Tianyin (Jing Boran) with her unborn monster baby. To do so, she slices open her own belly and stuffs the fetus down Tianyin’s mouth while he’s tied up. This isn’t the only curiously emasculating thing that happens to the overwhelmed mayor; when we first see him, he’s trying to handle a dispute between two older village women, who promptly beat him and yell at him to go back to doing the cleaning and sewing. (Meanwhile, his grandmother, herself once a monster-hunter, doesn’t actually recognize him — even though she lives with him.)
Most of the film follows Tianyin and a beautiful, tough monster-hunter named Xialon (Bai Baihe) as they try to keep the newborn monster, named Wuba, safe from a variety of pursuers: rival monster-hunters, the Monster King and his minions, not to mention wealthy businessmen who like to eat monsters as a delicacy and are looking to wage war between the two kingdoms to further their own ends. It’s a tangle of a plot, whose intricacies are tossed at us swiftly and crudely — often in bursts of expository dialogue, with little narrative dexterity or shorthand.
But then again, Monster Hunt is not a movie that aims for narrative dexterity, or subtlety, or grace. It’s a blunt, bloated object, designed to bludgeon us with silly action and broad humor. And it doesn’t pander to Western tastes, even if it apes some of Hollywood’s moviemaking methods. You’re not going to find Robert Downey Jr.–style wisecracking here, but you will find lots of mugging — the acting is all wide eyes and open mouths and waving arms. But once you get on the film’s level, you might start to appreciate its speed, its often-go-for-broke approach to action. This isn’t intense, stylized action of the John Woo or King Hu kind. This is altogether more cartoonish, with crude wirework and lots of flailing. Kids may well dig it.
Much like the rival worlds it depicts, Monster Hunt sits uneasily between bizarro mythology and kiddie flick. The animation of the monsters isn’t of the craggly, ornate kind that might haunt one’s dreams. Rather, their surfaces are smooth and their features soft and indistinct; the Monster Queen looks like a cross between a potted plant and an emoji, and Wuba is cuddly, like a pillow come to life. The animated characters don’t really seem to have much weight either, and haven’t been well integrated with the live-action. That’s likely a result of the film’s limited budget, but it also probably helps sell it to younger children, who might be creeped out if the monsters feel too immediate and real. The rough and vaguely surreal nature of the whole film, ironically, might be its great strength in this case. Monster Hunt will one day be a mere footnote in Chinese movie history. But it’s an occasionally enjoyable footnote.