'The Tiger's Apprentice' Review: Keep It Moving, Baby
The animated fantasy action-adventure rarely pauses to tell its story. Now streaming on Paramount Plus.
January is usually quiet for new films aimed at family audiences.
Perhaps studio executives feel that the extended holiday season will wear out parents and children. Or that families will be too busy watching videos that are gifted to them.
Facing a quiet marketplace, and dealing with production/release delays due to last year's labor strikes in Hollywood, Disney decided to roll out three films in theaters that had been released directly to their Disney Plus streaming service. The first, Soul, met with a resounding 'no, thank you,' picking up a paltry sum at the box office. The second, Turning Red, will escape into theaters this Friday, though with little wide publicity. (The third, Luca, is due next month.)
Alert to the absence of new family films in theaters, both Netflix and Paramount Plus released new films this past Friday. Orion and The Dark on Netflix is quite good, as I noted earlier this week in my review. But what about the entry from Paramount Plus?
Eh, not so much.
First published in 2003, The Tiger's Apprentice is the first book in a trilogy of fantasy adventures by Laurence Yep, meant for middle-grade children. Animated by Mikros Animation, the same animation company that animated Orion and The Dark, the film looks richly beautiful and is incredibly detailed. The adventure is swift and the action is constant. The voice cast, including Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh, is quite good.
The difference between the two films lies in the story and its execution. David Magee wrote the screenplay for a live-action/CG hybrid, intended for Cartoon Network Studios back in 2010, that never got produced. The finished film is credited to David Magee and Christopher Yost (Thor: The Dark World, 2013, as well as other Marvel live-action films, and quite a lot of animated TV productions).
Whatever the merits of Yep's original book, which may have been fresh and invigorating when it was published in 2003, post-Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the film feels entirely familiar nowadays.
The elements are workmanlike: young Tom Lee (voiced by Brandon Soo Hoo), living in modern-day San Francisco, has no idea that he is the heir to the magical powers of his beloved grandmother (Khen Hua Tan), who is the guardian of the all-powerful 'phoenix egg.' When she unexpectedly leaves the scene, under furious attack by the (almost) all-powerful and evil Loo (Michelle Yeoh), who is desperate to grab the 'phoenix egg,' Tom comes under the protection of (pretty) powerful Mr. Hu (Henry Golding), who can transform into a magical tiger.
As Mr. Hu trains Tom to become the new guardian, he introduces Tom to more magical animals/guardians: a dragon (Sandra Oh), a rat (Bowen Yang), a monkey (Sherry Cola), a pig (Deborah S. Craig), a rooster (Jo Koy), a rabbit (Greta Lee), a horse (Diana Lee Inosanto), a dog (Patrick Gallagher), and a snake (Poppy Liu). Meanwhile, a frog (Lucy Liu), empress of the spirit world, is the guardian of the temple of the guardians.
Directed by Raman Hui, the film moves quickly from action-sequence to action-sequence, rarely pausing to take a break or allow time to appreciate the nearly-continuous action. The breathless pace flies by too quickly for my taste; it feels like an endless blizzard of movement, which lessens the impact of the action and minimizes the consequences upon the many, many characters, who remain colorful creatures who are only vaguely involved as bit players in the primary narrative.
Some may thoroughly enjoy the constant whizz-bang of the movie; it feels like it's designed for young children, who may be pleasantly distracted -- delighted seems like too strong an adjective -- by the persistent movements. Adults without children, however, are less likely to see anything new or different about the movie, which, at best, makes it only a nominal possibility for the viewing pleasure of subscribers to this particular service. [Paramount Plus]