The Tiger's Apprentice
The animation and voice work are decent but the storytelling is cut-rate in this Eastern-themed story about a teen who finds allies with creatures of legend.
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It’s no secret to any lover of animated films that the game has changed in the last few years. The studio giants that consistently put out the best feature films — Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks — have grown staid and tired in their storytelling. The Annie Awards, the animation industry’s highest honor, for the first time included no Disney feature since that award has been given out starting in 1992.
(Personally I don’t buy the claim it’s because they’ve gotten too “woke.” There’s nothing wrong with making cartoon movies more reflective of our society. They just haven’t been very good — “Wish,” “Elemental.”)
That’s left an opening for other producers/distributors of animation to step into, which Netflix and other streaming services are doing. “The Tiger’s Apprentice” is an effort from one of the newer upstart streamers, Paramount+, and debuts Feb. 2 with an Eastern-themed tale about a Chinese-American teen who allies himself with creatures of legend representing the Zodiac.
The animation is decent, with a very sharp, detailed look that still retains a certain cartoon-y aesthetic. Similarly the voice work is emotive and engaging, and includes some “name” actors including Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh.
Unfortunately, the storytelling doesn’t have the same level of polish.
Directed by Raman Hui from a screenplay by David Magee and Christopher Yost (based on the novel by Laurence Yep), it’s a fast-paced, slapdash and often confusing affair that will probably leave anyone older than kindergarten age underwhelmed.
If you don’t include the credits bonus scene, the movie comes in around 73 minutes. It feels like it either needs to be much shorter or longer.
The opening sequence takes place in Hong Kong, where an old woman fleeing with her baby grandson is attacked by Loo (Yeoh), a malevolent sorceress who looks like an insane geisha (or the Chinese equivalent thereof) and wields a strange umbrella as a weapon. They are assisted in fighting her off by the Circle of 12 representing the signs of the Zodiac, with Tiger as the unofficial leader.
Flash forward 15 years and the baby is now Tom (Brandon Soo Hoo), a kind-hearted, geeky kid living in San Francisco. Bullied at school he unwittingly unleashes some of his latent magical powers, which attracts the attention of Loo and causes her to reappear and kill Tom’s grandmother. Turns out she is the human guardian who is protected by the Circle, and in turn is the ward of the Phoenix, a powerful jewel talisman that supposed created all of humanity — and has the power to wipe them out.
A rangy, smirking fellow named Mr. Hu (Golding) is revealed to be Tiger in his human form, living a quiet life as the proprietor of a nearby curio shop while secretly watching over Tom. He takes the boy into his tutelage with several “Matrix”-like training sequences.
Some of the other Circle reappear too, including Sidney (Bowen Yang), a rat who lives for stealing, and Mistral (Oh), a traditional Chinese dragon who can fly, breathe fire and otherwise seems super OP — that’s ‘overpowered’ in gamer lingo — compared to her colleagues.
The rest, including Horse, Rabbit, Pig and Rooster, are curiously missing, though it doesn’t take a lot of guessing to surmise that the evil Loo has something to do with that.
We know where this is going: a final showdown with Loo and her army of smoke-like demons, where Tom will discover that he plays a pivotal role in the universe, if only he’ll accept Tiger’s teachings and embrace his destiny.
The metaphysical logic of “The Tiger’s Apprentice” is a little screwy. On a couple of occasions Tom spirit-journeys to another realm where an all-powerful Empress acts as an ambivalent god of some sort. It’s hard to place where that fits together with Tom’s magic, the Phoenix jewel, Loo and the Zodiac critters.
The movie also feels compelled to throw in a love interest for Tom in the form of Räv (Leah Lewis), a skateboarding punk-ish girl who just moved to town. The story doesn’t really give her anything to do other than occasionally hang out on the fringes and be threatened, and the supposed romance between the two teens is left so back-burnered that there’s no heat to speak of.
I’d suggest the filmmakers just write her out of the story, but then the threadbare thing would be even barer.
“The Tiger’s Apprentice” isn’t terrible, but it really hasn’t got a lot going for it beyond goodish production values. Disney and the other animation giants may be off their game, but it’ll take a lot better practice than this to knock them off their perch.