These days, the story in Hollywood has been that Americans make the movies and the Chinese consume them. Much of a film’s success comes from the foreign market, particularly the world’s most populous country with a growing appetite for cinema. But now, the tables are turned, as China’s biggest box office success, “Monster Hunt,” hits American theaters. Filled with cutesy computer-generated monster characters and set in medieval China, the film aims squarely for the kids and young adult demographic, with its broad comedy and storyline. But even if you’re watching “Monster Hunt” for cultural anthropological reasons, the utterly bizarre and quirky tale of humans and monsters learning to live together isn’t without its charms and entertaining qualities.
Directed by Raman Hui, who is known for his animation work on the “Shrek” films, “Monster Hunt” opens with a quick prologue about why humans and monsters don’t live together anymore — the humans wanted a monopoly on the world, and banished the monsters to live in the mountains. What’s sprung up is a monster hunting market, where hunters capture monsters for a large bounty. The blobby creatures come in all varieties — short and round, or large and ferocious, but they definitely aren’t that scary. They are also able to convincingly disguise themselves as human.
A pregnant monster queen escapes an attack and ends up in the village of Tianyin (Boran Jing), where two monster hunters — plucky female upstart Huo Xiaolan (Baihe Bai) and the seasoned master Luo Gang (Wu Jiang) — have squared off in search of monster bounty. The queen entrusts Tianyin with the care of her baby in a very odd way: She impregnates him with the egg, and he later gives birth to the baby monster king. Yes, there are some very odd gender-bending themes and humor that occur throughout the film.
The baby monster king, Wuba, is such an adorable little radish that he’s impossible to resist, and the trio of Tianyin, Huo Xiaolan and Wuba band together to fight the system that keeps humans and monsters apart. The film is a mix of animation and live-action wonders, with eye-popping martial arts sequences and the monster animation. The special effects aren’t the most convincing, but the design itself is unique.
“Monster Hunt” doesn’t play by any rules, and this both works in its favor and doesn’t. A henchman might be able to control fire, unexpectedly, or Huo Xiaolan might have some mysterious little animated paper cut-outs that come to life and help her out. Most of the special powers aren’t explained and are rather convenient to get our heroes out of a pinch. But this isn’t the type of film where you seek internal logic (because there isn’t much). It’s much better to enjoy “Monster Hunt” in all of its baffling weirdness and just let it wash over you.
There are a few cute songs with dancing monsters, several exciting fight scenes, and a fair amount of lowest-common-denominator body humor. The performances are big and broad, underscored with a sound effects heavy soundtrack. But “Monster Hunt” sneaks up on you with its unabashed silliness, and there’s something very entertaining about that.