Chinese Animation

160: Fantastica - A Boonie Bears Adventure Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com/camseyeview. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

As I come close to reaching 200 reviews, something that I have wanted to avoid is now becoming more and more unavoidable, direct-to-video features. I have nothing against filmmakers or animated features from overseas that can only find some ray of light under the sun with being sent directly to video, but unfortunately, that phrase “Direct-to-Video” comes with some big and not very helpful signs of quality. When you hear those three words, it usually means films that were made for cheap, they scrounged up enough for at least one C-list actor, cast the rest with YouTubers looking for a big break, fill out the rest with voice actors, and animation that would be good enough for a TV release back in the late 90s early 2000s. Sure, sometimes you get the films like GKids put out direct-to-video that are way better than the stuff you find on random shelves in grocery stores or bargain bins, but Direct-to-Video doesn’t carry a positive distinction. So, if I was going to tackle something that went directly to store shelves, I might as well pick something that had some cultural weight and has made an impression on the animation culture. This led me to China’s The Boonie Bears. This is a Chinese CGI-animated series starring two bears, Bramble and Briar, who constantly try to stop Logger Vick’s plans to chop down the trees. To say this is a massive show would be an understatement, as it has over 600 episodes, is translated into multiple languages including Mandarin, English, Russian, Spanish, French, and Hindi,  and it has been distributed in over 82 countries. Since this was a popular series by Fantawild Animation, you knew spin-offs and films were going to be a thing. We will be looking at one of the films today. Currently, the franchise has six films released, but today, we will be covering the fourth film, Fantastica: A Boonie Bears Adventure. Directed by Ding Liang, Fantastica, or as the original title is listed, Boonie Bears: Entangled Worlds, was released in China back in 2017, but got a recent US release by Viva Pictures, a distributor that I wish I had more positive things to say about. Anyway, how does this film actually hold up for a US release, and for people who may not know anything about this brand or the distributor? Let’s see what happens!

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The story starts off pretty typically. Logger Vick, dubbed by Paul Rinehart is up to his devilish deeds of trying to chop down the trees. Luckily, Briar and Bramble Bear, dubbed by Mario Lopez and Josh Peck, chase after him. However, Vick ends up running into a robot, dubbed by Siobhan Lumsden, who was part of an archeological team that was ambushed by a group of thieves. The robot ends up being named Coco, and tells Vick and the two bears about an ancient artifact called the Golden Antlers that are in a land called Fantastica. The four end up going on an adventure to find Fantastica and the Antlers while avoiding the group of thieves that works for a tech expert that is also looking for the Antlers. Can they find the Antlers before the baddies do?

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So, let’s mix things up a bit, and talk about the elephant in the room. There are two different dubs for this film. One has the cast from the English dub of the show, and the one we have from Viva Pictures is the one that just adds two celebrities to the title with Mario Lopez and Josh Peck. I watched both side to side, and while the Viva Pictures version might not be a Weinstein-level hatchet job to the film, there’s not a lot that changes, outside of Josh Peck trying to throw out some on-the-spot pop culture references or joke lines when his character’s mouth is not on screen. While I do not approve of just redubbing with two celebrities to have two names on the digital storefront or DVD, I’m at the very least glad they didn’t try to edit the film in any major ways. That’s already making this film way better than 99% of The Weinstein Company’s animation library. Besides, even if this film didn’t get a Weinstein-level hatchet job, you wouldn’t believe me by how the story is told.

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Yeah, while it isn’t butchered to the point of being confusing, a lot of story elements are confusing or not fleshed out enough to make sense. For one, let’s talk about the villains. Apparently, the villains are from a different universe and place in time. I say this, because they look more live-action, but when they enter the Boonie Bears’ universe, they look more cartoonish. Okay, I don’t think they needed this to happen. It’s not like there aren’t human characters. Why did they need to over-complicate their origins? They also don’t flesh out the villains enough, in terms of why they want the Golden Antlers. They try to throw in some kind of backstory for the main bad guy, but then it’s resolved by the end of the movie. Yeah, none of it is satisfying, nor do they make the villains entertaining. They are pretty dime-a-dozen with little to no personality. No matter whom you focus on in this film, and that includes the main characters, it feels undercooked. Vick ends up being this secondary neutral character, but then has an abrupt villain turn, but then becomes the good guy again in the end. Even the two Boonie Bears don’t do much, but react to the situation. They interact and do help out a little, but not enough to matter. They felt like side characters within their own movie, which is always obnoxious. It’s meant to be this big fantastical fantasy adventure, and yet, once we finally get to Fantastica, they rush through it. Even the highly marketed female archer person you see both leads talk about in their videos is bland. Sure, she is a good shot, but that’s about it. It’s a film that, while China is having a serious resurgence in animation, they still have a lot to learn with storytelling. Oh, and the ending is all kinds of abrupt and disappointing.

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So, the story and overall experience is a slightly negative disappointment. Is there anything I do like about the film? Well, while the comedy in the film doesn’t really work and they try too many kinds of jokes, there were a few laughs to be had. The voice cast is mostly annoying, but even if there was no real reason to hire Josh Peck, I think he does the best out of the two celebrities they hired. Seriously though, a few of the actors they obtained for certain characters have some of the most obnoxious voices I have ever heard from fictional characters. I will also give them credit that a part of the fantastical world of, well, Fantastica does look creative. A lot of what you see in this magical land can be rather typical for fantasy land elements, but I was digging the creatures that inhabit the land of Fantastica. It at the very least, leads to some pretty visuals. Animation-wise, it was okay. It’s still not up there with some of China’s recent efforts, and some of the animation is janky, but its way better than something like The Adventures of Panda Warrior.

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Sadly, Fantastica: A Boonie Bears Adventure is another disappointment from China’s animation offerings. I found it odd that Viva Pictures, the notorious distributors of films like Foodfight, Son of Bigfoot, Monster Family, Monkey King: Hero is Back, Gaturro, and Ozzy, decided to pick just one of the films. Though I’m sure it’s not going to do well for them, because it’s not the first film, and barely anyone that I have talked to has ever heard of this franchise. Viva Pictures probably picked it up, because it was cheap, and they don’t have a quality control person to tell them to stop picking up the bargain bin titles. Oh well, maybe one day Viva Pictures will have a film that’s both worth talking about and worth seeing. Now then, let’s get back to the positive vibes and look at what might be 2019’s best animated feature with Dennis Do’s Funan. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Lackluster!

140: Big Fish & Begonia Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

In the span of a few years, China has started to throw its hat into the ring of animation. They have now made it a goal to not just be the country other countries use for their animation, or the creator of a flood of mediocre features. While The Monkey King: Hero is Back was a good first step, I would hardly call it a good movie. The true first step for the country would come in the form of an animated feature that came out back in 2016, but finally got a release here in the states, Big Fish & Begonia. This unique and important title was the passion project behind the directors, Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. It was based on a Chinese Taoist story called Zhuangzi, but apparently drew from other Chinese classic tales as well. After going through up to over a decade of financial troubles of getting funding, spending it, and lack of animation talent, the film was finally finished. It was picked up by Shout! Factory last year, and was a feature that people payed major attention to during film festivals, including being one of the big features of the Animation is Film Festival. So, was a decade of development worth the hype and final product? Well, let’s check it out.

The story follows Chu, dubbed by Stephanie Sheh. She is a 16 year-old girl who lives in a world that lies on the other side of the human world’s ocean. It’s full of powerful individuals and spirits. Chun has to go through a rite of passage, and venture into the human world as a red dolphin. While in the human world, Chun is smitten by a human male named Kun, dubbed by Todd Haberkorn. After a few days swimming around, Chun gets caught inside a fishing net, and Kun tries to save her. Luckily, he gets her out, but ends up drowning in the process. Feeling guilty as all get-out about Kun dying, Chun ends up going to a place called the Island of Souls to try and bring Kun back. She offers the caretaker, Ling Po, dubbed by JB Blanc, half of her life to bring Kun back. After that, she spends the next chunk of her life taking care of Kun as he grows bigger, and makes sure he can go back to the human world. The bad news is that while Kun is there, the world that she lives in is in major peril. Can she make sure Kun gets back alive? What is she willing to sacrifice to make sure that happens?

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A problem I see with many passion projects that take a good decade or so to fully complete is that the creators try to shove in too much into the film, and never think about cutting certain story elements, or redoing some of the script. Of course, animation can be a huge endeavor, and making changes on the fly can be costly, but you can run the risk of making the film feel too busy, bloated, and or unfocused. Unfortunately, a lot of the problems with Big Fish & Begonia is that there is too much going on. Much of the film is Chun’s relationship with Kun, and her learning about life, death, sacrifice, and the consequences to certain actions, but they shove in a lot of characters, and a lot of time spent with Chun over vast landscapes. I’ll admit, many of the logical issues I keep questioning throughout my time watching the film are probably more of a cultural thing, and how the film wants to be more of a fairy tale. However, how far can you go with those kinds of defenses until they become too distracting? How much homework does one need to do on Chinese culture to fully understand the magical logic used in the film? It shouldn’t turn into a homework project to fully get what’s going on, and who everyone is. I don’t mind learning about the culture, but the film should be explaining to me visually what’s going on. For example, there is this rat woman who is an obvious threat, but you don’t get why she wants to go to the human world, and you don’t see her again after a certain period of time. I mean, yes, you can tell by her design and the way she interacts with everyone, that she is a threat, but why? I also get that having Kun stay in their world brings upon a lot of damage and danger, but why? Why does having a human spirit cause such chaos? The story also goes at a rather fast pace. It’s not a truly horrible thing, but I think the film’s atmosphere and emotional investment would have been stronger if they let some time pass between certain moments. While Studio MiR, the same studio behind Avatar: The Last Airbender and Netflix’s Voltron series, has some breathtaking animation done for Big Fish & Begonia, its use of CGI is definitely distracting. It’s not as bad as, say, Blue Submarine No. 6, but you can always tell when it’s CGI. It becomes more distracting when you see the giant flying whales that look like something out of that Fantasia 2000 short.

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With all that said, Big Fish & Begonia has great elements in its overall package. Like I said above, the animation is gorgeous. The backgrounds are awe inspiring, the designs are whimsical, the movements are fluid, and it’s an incredible visual feast for the eyes. You can tell there was a heavy dose of passion throughout this entire film’s visual presentation. It’s an incredible treat for the eyes that you need to see on the biggest screen you can. I even regret not seeing this one when it came out in my neck of the woods! As for the dub, I have seen both the original with subtitles, and the dub that Funimation helped out with. I think the cast is pretty stellar that includes actors such as Stephanie Sheh, Johnny Yong Bosch, Todd Haberkorn, JB Blanc, Cindy Robinson, Yuri Lowenthal, Greg Chun, Kate Higgins, Kyle Hebert, Erika Ishii, and Cam Clarke. The music by Kiyoshi Yoshida is full of that Chinese flair. It’s fantastical, mystical, and epic when needed. You might have heard of his name and his music if you have seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, where he did the soundtrack for that film. Another strong element is the relationship between Chun, Kun, and Chun’s friend Qui, dubbed by Johnny Yong Bosch. Most of the time you see Chun and Kun together is done with very little dialogue. The visuals tell the story, which, you know, is sort of important in a visual medium like animation.

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Big Fish & Begonia might be a bit of a mess, but it’s an important film for China and the Chinese animation scene. If you watch the trailers or clips, and you think you would like this film, I definitely recommend checking it out. It’s an impressive start, and I hope that means that other 2D animated projects that are going on over in China, can start raising the bar as time goes on. Well, after this, I definitely need something a bit zanier, a bit more focused, and maybe something that can make the night go on forever. Next time, we are going to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s other hit film, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!

 

121: Have a Nice Day

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated and live-action films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

For the last two years, I have seen China start to put their foot down, and really compete with animation. While not a great movie, The Monkey King: Hero is Back was a competent action-adventure flick that raked in millions. Big Fish & Begonia, a decade old 2D-animated film is getting positive reviews, and is coming out this year thanks to Funimation and Shout! Factory.  In general, it’s good to see that they want to put a lot of effort into their future projects, and not just coax by on cheap-animated schlock. Another animated film that I was looking forward to coming out in the states was Have a Nice Day. Directed by Liu Jian, Have a Nice Day made waves in the news when it was pulled from the Annecy Film Festival last year by the Chinese government. This caused a huge controversial backlash toward the country, because not only was China the guest country at the festival, but it was also considered a move of censorship by the country. While it was winning awards around the festival circuit, is Have a Nice Day worth the hype and controversy? Well, kind of. Let’s dive in.

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Have a Nice Day is a dark comedy with a mix of social commentary revolving around a cab driver who robs someone of $150 grand in US currency to help his girlfriend in South Korea with her plastic surgery.  Unfortunately for him, that money belonged to a mob boss, and it then turns into this mad dash between multiple characters to get that money from one another.

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Let’s talk about the most standout aspect of Have a Nice Day, the animation. Now, usually, I consider animation to be moving drawn pictures, or CGI models moving around. Have a Nice Day really stretches the terms of animation. A lot of the films are in still frames with mouths staying open when they talk. There is some movement, but it’s more like an underground motion comic. I can perfectly understand why this might turn people off. It all looks fine, but it’s as if you took still frames, and took inspiration from the animation philosophy from Adult Swim’s early days. I can understand if this was done on a shoe-string budget, and there wasn’t enough left over for the animation, but this will definitely put people off.  I know I have given the country flack for its bad animation, and while this one was probably more due to artistic decisions or budget limitations, it’s almost not an animated film. I know that sounds sort of gate-keeping to not call it animation, but once you see the trailer for this film, it’s understandable.

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So, since the animation is hugely kneecapped, what does this film have to counter-balance for the lack of animation? Thankfully, the best aspect of the movie is the dialogue. While you are definitely looking at a bunch of still frames, the dialogue between characters is interesting. It has a few solid jokes thrown in from time to time that are legit funny. It’s also interesting to see a bunch of the characters, major and minor, talk about money, and how China looks at money. Maybe that’s why it was pulled from the festival, but I personally found nothing offensive about this film, but I’m a white guy from Texas, so what do I know? It reminds me of The Rabbi’s Cat, since that film also had some odd animation, but you were kept invested with the film’s dialogue. The film also has a build-up to an immensely funny punchline at the end, but I won’t spoil it here.

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While I did find admiration that this was a mostly one-man job, I think my favorite aspect of the sound design was the music. Yes, there is one really random musical sequence in the film, but my favorite bit of music was the opening song by The Shanghai Restoration Project. It had a nice jazzy blues feel that fit over the decrepit and broken side of China. If anyone is curious, the track is called Dark Horse. While the animation was fairly, um, still, I found the acting to be pretty solid. I won’t say I remember one person being better than the other, but the chemistry between everyone felt cohesive. It was interesting to see how the acting would gel with the limited animation, and I was not all that distracted by it. Then again, I knew going in that this film would live and die by its dialogue and character interaction.

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Now then, let’s talk about the downsides. The animation is going to split people so hard down the middle. On one hand, it’s a style, and the director worked within his limitations of budget and time, while using more artistic liberties with what can be considered “animation”. On the other hand, it feels pointless to make this an animated film, because of how limiting the animation is. Sure, you can get the gestures and movements from the simple frames, but at the same time, it’s really pushing the definition of animation. It’s definitely going to distract a lot of people, and whether this was a purposeful decision or not, I did find myself at points being pulled out of the experience. While I love the entire punchline to the film at the end, it is a grind to get there. It’s not a very long movie, but it takes its time slow-burning its way to the finish line. It also does that thing where it cuts off at the end, leaving the ending to be up in the air in terms of what exactly happened after the big climatic sequence. I mean, sure, you can pick up what might have happened, but I think the film would have worked better with more closure. Then again, I know this technique is popular among many filmmakers like Tarantino, so your mileage may vary with the ending.

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While I was definitely happy to have a Movie Pass for this film, I’m still very glad I went out and supported it. It’s good to support original films and smaller creators if their films are showing in theaters in your area. I’m happy to see Chinese animation get ambitious with their goals with the medium, and while Have a Nice Day doesn’t check off all the boxes, it’s a way more important and interesting movie that’s out right now than 50 Shades Freed and that pointless Death Wish remake. If you can find a way to watch it, I would definitely recommend checking it out. Just look up the trailer for the film first to see if you might be into it. Well, let’s continue the support of animated films from overseas and look at the Annie Award-winning and Oscar-nominated The Breadwinner. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time.

Rating: Rent It!

The Other Side of Animation 110: Guardian Brothers Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

When I wrote my editorial about The Weinstein Company, and how awful of an animation distributor they were, a few days later, they announced that they were going to open up a new animation distribution branch that will specifically handle animated films. This raised so many red flags, but against my more moral judgement, I decided to give them a chance. As much as I get annoyed with certain studios like Illumination or Blue Sky, I never want them to fail. Even my anger with Lionsgate is more to the fact that I want them to stop bringing over everything just because it’s cheap and affordable. I want studios and distributors to succeed because when they do something good, it should be rewarded. Too bad The Weinsteins lost that one chance in one move with the 110th review, Guardian Brothers. As a rule, I only look at infamous bombs, successes, and failures as every 10th review, since I would rather talk about awesome stuff, and not be tied to looking at only “bad” stuff. So, what’s so bad about this one? Well, this was supposed to be the next “big” animated film to be brought over by The Weinsteins. It had a large cast, including Edward Norton, Meryl Streep, Dan Fogler, Bella Thorne, and Nicole Kidman. I mean, that sounds impressive for a film to have that cast. Hopefully it means that the film is such a monumentally amazing product that they wouldn’t even dare just slip it onto Netflix with no one knowing unless someone said something, right? Yeah, if you couldn’t tell by that “oh so subtle” amount of sarcasm, they slipped it onto Netflix like they did with Underdogs. Kind of makes you wonder why they cared at all to bring this over, chop it up, and spend that money hiring those big actors if they are just going to act like cowards, and release it with no one to know that they did such a thing. Before we start, I wanted to be fair with this film, so I watched both the original Chinese version, and The Weinstein version. So, heads up to the fact that I’m going to be comparing the two. Oh, and screw The Weinsteins. Well, let’s get started.

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The film follows two brothers named Yu Lei and Shen Tu, voiced by Edward Norton and Dan Folger. They are gods that are feeling unloved by the humans, because no one is worshipping them for what they represent in the human’s lives. They then get taught about how they could possibly gain back the love and popularity with the humans, by adapting with the changing times. Unfortunately, they decided to shrug that off, because as you know, people fear change. Luckily, they get told of a different solution. The solution may come in the form of an evil spirit that was sealed in earth, after being defeated many years ago. Yu Lei decides to take on this task, while his brother Shen Tu  gets involved with trying to stop him, but also deal with a mother and daughter who are the only humans who keep their presence around, even as the world moves forward. Can Shen Tu stop his brother from unleashing a terrible evil? Can the gods find a way for humans to love them again?

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So, let’s just do a quick review of the original movie. I have to talk about the original first, because a lot of my complaints come from how Weinstein and his inept crew of animation individuals handled this movie. The original movie was called Little Door Gods. It was around 100 or so minutes, and to be frank, the movie is mediocre. It’s a film with a horrible pacing problem, jumping between Shen Tu interacting with the humans, and him trying to stop his brother from unleashing an ultimate evil. This is on top of the mother and daughter characters trying to stop a franchise mogul from taking over their restaurant. It ultimately takes away the stakes, due to how much the plot jumps around. It’s too much going on, and you don’t even see this large evil spirit until 15 minutes before the movie ends. Overall, the best part about the movie was the moral. Times change, and you need to adapt to the change, but you can still respect the past. It’s an interesting story element, and it gives the film a reason to exist. It’s like Meet the Robinsons or Monster’s University, two films that are not really that good, but have great morals near the end of their respective runtimes. It made slugging through the film less of a waste of time.

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Now, what do the Weinsteins do with this film? Well, you know the entire point of the film was to embrace change, but to stay true to yourself, and respect the past? Well, too bad if that was your favorite part! They entirely rewrote the script, and took out those aspects. So, what do you get? Not a whole lot. You still get the whole evil spirit plot point, but the overall story feels hollow. You can obviously tell they cut scenes to be shorter, or cut out scenes entirely. There is a great example of this stupid scene cutting, when Shen Tu and the little girl go get the health inspector, and the health inspector reminisces about a costume party that you never get to see. You even see a snippet of that scene in the end credits. Like, why cut it out? Granted, a lot of the film was padded to fill the runtime, but if you are going to cut a scene, then make sure it’s a scene that has no value to the overarching story. It doesn’t help that the film has all the cringe-inducing additions of a Weinstein-distributed animated film. They force in jokes, pop songs, and a terrible voice-over dub. For a film starring such a huge cast of actors, you would think they would care about their performances, but it sounds like they cranked out the dub in a day, found out Leap! didn’t do well in the box office, and just used the first take for the film, and shoved the film onto Netflix, with no warning or advertisement.

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Seriously, why was this film picked up? This was supposed to be the flagship title under the Weinstein’s new animated feature label, and yet, they just shoved it onto Netflix, with no one knowing unless you are in the animation scene. They already had the worst reputation in animation, and they made it worse by forcing this movie out. Even with the edits they made, it doesn’t fix anything. The movie was already flawed, so by editing it, the flaws are more apparent, and you don’t end up with a better product. It’s still a boring movie to watch, and all the added “benefits” don’t improve it. Animation has come so far since its inception, and the Weinsteins act like this is still 2001 when Shrek came out. Are you that ashamed that you started an animation branch, and knew Guardian Brothers wasn’t going to go over well?

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So, is there anything really good about the Weinstein version or the original version? I mean, kind of. While films like Kung Fu Panda 3 have better fight scenes, Guardian Brothers still has some scenes where the action is pretty decent. The last fight against the evil spirit is creative at points, and even though this next praise is only for the original version, I still like the moral of having to confront change, since I know that is hard for a lot of people. The animation, while not theatrical quality at all, is still better than most Chinese-theatrical animated films. You can tell they wanted this to look good. You can tell the country wants to make more films with the effort that Pixar puts into their films. It’s not there yet with Chinese-theatrical animation, but I respect that they are at least trying. That is something the Weinsteins have never done with animated films.

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It was challenging to know how to grade this movie. On one hand, it’s not a great movie, but the original is harmless. The Weinstein version is a chore to watch for a load of other reasons, and for their first flagship title under their short-lived animation branch, they messed up. They made a mediocre film worse, by simply removing the moral of the original film and simplifying everything. When you have an actress like Meryl Streep in the movie, and fail to use her, you know something is broken beyond repair. As much as I hate Spark: A Space Tail, it was, at the very least, presented as intended. Guardian Brothers was not, and it’s a worse film for it. Avoid it at all cost, and just watch or buy the Kung Fu Panda trilogy if you want some Chinese-themed action films with good stories, characters, and fight sequences. Well, it’s Christmas time, and this year, things are about to get a lot more oversaturated and yellow as we review the Despicable Me franchise with their first film. Thanks for reading! I hope you all enjoyed the review, and I will see you next time.

Rating: Blacklist/The Worst!

The Other Side of Animation 79: The Monkey King: Hero is Back

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

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So, if I told you that I found an animated film from China that is pretty solid, would you believe me? I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t believe me. There has always been this stigma of China going for a quantity-over-quality style of filmmaking, and yeah, when you realize just how many animated films they make, it definitely shows how low the quality can be. I’m sure there are plenty of good animated films from China, but since most are never brought over here unless Lionsgate has  another bad spending day, then I won’t know about them. Granted, there are some great looking animated films coming out that are really promising. Today’s review is one of those promising films from China, Monkey King: Hero is Back. This was released in 2015, and has the noteworthy title of being China’s highest grossing animated film of all time. Well, until Kung Fu Panda 3 and Zootopia overtook it, but still. In terms of just China-made animated films, it’s the highest grossing animated film from that country. It’s weird because there were so many movies based on the Monkey King, and they got passable reviews. What about this film specifically made a dent in terms of films based on such a mystical character? Well, let’s find out.

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The story revolves a young boy who lives with a monk, played by James Hong, after his parents were killed by trolls. One day, the boy’s town is attacked by the same trolls from long ago. The boy does escape them, but ends up falling into a cave and accidentally awakens the imprisoned Monkey King, voiced by Jackie Chan. The Monkey King really doesn’t want anything to do with the kid, but is then forced into a quest of taking down an evil lord, voiced by Feodor Chin. Can the great Monkey King take down the evil force and bond with the young boy?

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I will start out with the negatives about this film; it might have the worst dub job that I have seen so far. It’s so rushed and poorly synced that it wouldn’t be a shock if they did this dubbing in an afternoon. I mean, it feels like no effort was put into having the voices sync up with the lip movements. The actors also didn’t put in much into their performances. It’s like they knew this was a trainwreck, and that they were going to be in a better animated film together with Kung Fu Panda 3, so they didn’t put too much effort into their roles. Even this annoying comedic side character played by Roger Craig Smith has a, “I really don’t care that I’m here” attitude. Or, maybe they were trying their best, and the individual in charge of the dub wasn’t doing their job! The film is also very annoying in terms of humor, with a lot of pandering fart jokes and other jokes that don’t really work. It’s distracting, and makes the film-going experience tough to sit through, since sitting through a movie with very bad jokes is a massive chore.

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The animation is also not really impressive. Granted, we are seeing small signs that China is getting better with their animation quality, but the CGI is pretty low level, and the animations are stiff when there aren’t any fight sequences or grand movements on screen. Textures are low quality, but the designs are fine. They aren’t anything amazing, but when you have seen how ugly bad foreign CGI character designs can be, it’s higher-up on the totem pole than most. The story is also very generic. On top of not really explaining how a few incidences in the film happened, it’s a very Hollywoodized version of the Monkey King legend that is apparently the biggest property to make films out of in China. I mean, I get it, since the US has the biggest turn-on for most young adult novels that have no right in being made into movies. The characters are not that interesting either. They were boring, generic, or really annoying. I don’t get the deal behind having an annoying kid team up with the lead character, who is much more interesting. The kid was really grating, and I don’t know if I’m right about this, but I think the creators knew that since there were way too many times in the movie where the kid would have or should have died. They did it just to annoy people. It even takes the weight out of the final climatic fight scene, because they don’t kill the kid in the end. I mean, why would you do that? It’s like when they “killed” Superman in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and then teased at the very end that he’s coming back. Like, yeah, now you have ruined that character’s story arc. I don’t get why you would do that. Unless this was some clever Edgar Wright comedy, you shouldn’t ruin something like a death of a major character.

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So, what is actually good about this movie? Well, out of all the Chinese CGI trainwrecks that I can think of, The Monkey King: Hero is Back (and I still don’t get why they couldn’t fix that weird title) is at the very least watchable. It’s not something like Gods of Egypt or Norm of the North, where watching it is a chore. While it can get annoying, The Monkey King: Hero is Back does at the very least have some tension and investment in taking down the demon lord. The fights are also fun to watch. You can tell a lot of the budget and effort went into these sequences. While they never reach the heights of the Kung Fu Panda series or Kubo and the Two Strings, they are still entertaining enough to get you through the slog of bad jokes and horrible voicework. While the villain wasn’t anything that interesting, I at least enjoyed the campy personality, and the final fight with him and the Monkey King was fun to watch.

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While I totally get why this film got so much acclaim, I still don’t think it is all that great. It’s just very average. The only real reason to rent this film on any occasion would be because of its legacy and its status. Maybe if you can find this film for $5 or less, I could recommend it, but if you want good kung fu/action in animated form, just get the Kung Fu Panda trilogy or Kubo and the Two Strings. There are a ton of animated films that have much better action sequences and just better overall experiences that you should check out before even putting money down on The Monkey King: Hero is Back. It’s a shame since if the story and animation was better, I would have easily called this film the hidden gem of 2016, but that title goes to Mune: Guardian of the Moon and 25 April. Well, I’ll say this. I would rather watch The Monkey King: Hero is Back much more than what the next review will tackle. I won’t say what it is, but it is quite possibly the biggest flop in terms of animation from 2016. Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Rent it.