The first feature length animated film from China is a must see for fans of Chinese cinema with an interest in their history as well as anyone who is a hardcore animation fan with a desire to see it all. For the rest of you this is going to be a tough sell.
The film tells to story of three travelers, one of which is The Monkey King traveling to the West. They are stopped by a huge area of fire in the mountains and they must get a fan owned by the title character if they are to proceed. The story starts there and then spins off in a couple of other directions.
I'm not going to lie, since as you can see from my synopsis of the plot, I'm very mixed about the film. There are some wonderful things in it and some things that had me puttering around my room while I watched.
The problems come from the style of the story telling. Its a style that we in the West are not used to, even those of use who watch a large number of films from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its a style that matches the style of the films being made at about the same point of time and after the war. Its mannered and flowing and has more going on than just telling the plot and getting on with it. Things like the sing along song about the banquet just weren't my cup of tea (and for the record I never liked the follow the bouncing ball in American films either). Ultimately I think its too mannered in a way I'm not used to for it to fully work for me.
On the other hand there are some wonderful things going on.
The animation which relies heavily on rotoscoping for the bipedal characters is often quite lovely. Sure its rotoscoped but there is a beauty to the motion we don't often see in many animated films- even ones that are similarly rotoscoped. The non-rotoscoped sequences are often amazing with things like the fire demon being a joy to behold.
And of course there are the backgrounds. Done in the style one sees in clssical paintings they give the film a sense of being some thing from antiqity sprung to life. Disney may have tried to do something similar with some bits of Mulan, and other recent films have tried to do something similar, but this is the real deal. It reminded me or what was done with Secret of Kells the recent Oscar nominated film that had a design based upon the designs in the Book of Kells.
The animation has a feel, once you get past the rotoscoping, of being an odd amalgum of western styles. Bits feel like Fleischer, but mixed with Ub Iwerks (and I mean Iwerks and not Disney), and a touch of the Otto Messner Felix the Cat. I would also dare say that there is a heavy influence of silent film fantasy especially something similar to the George Melies films. Its this weird feeling of watching all of these influences put into a blender and spit back out.
It's a fun film for a while, but its hard to sit through from start to finish unless you really are loving it or have some reason to be watching. Ambivalence aside Il I do recommend that you at least try the film. To that end if you follow this link you should be able to see a portion of the film.