Life has been quiet and simple in Yongning Village ever since the centuries-long conflict between monsters and humans ended in an uneasy truce. All that changes when bumbling villager Tianyin (Bai Baihe) bumps into the pregnant Queen of Monsters and her hapless servants in human disguise Zhugao (Eric Tsang) and Fat Ying (Sandra Ng) who are on the run from a murderous giant beast. In the chaos that ensues the queen manages to implant her embryo inside Tianyin moments before she dies. As a result of this astonishing turn of events poor Tianyin is entrapped by tomboyish monster hunter Xiao Lan (Jing Boran). Forming an uneasy alliance with Tianyin, Xiao Lan helps him 'birth' a radish-shaped baby monster named Wu Ba. Together they set off on a perilous journey looking to collect a handsome bounty with Zhugao and Fat Ying dogging their trail along with grizzled rival monster hunter Luo Gan (Jiang Wu), unaware Wu Ba is the royal heir and target of scheming restaurateur Ge Qianhu (Wallace Chung).
Made on a lavish budget with special effects technicians imported from Hollywood, Monster Hunt emerged as one of China's biggest homegrown hits in recent years. While the treatment is decidedly modern, spruced up with cartoony computer graphics, the source material dates back all the way to the Eighteenth century. The film very loosely adapts a folk tale culled from Pu Songling's Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, the same arcane tome that sired a rich legacy of Hong Kong classics including A Touch of Zen (1969), A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and Painted Skin (2008). Making his live action debut DreamWorks animator Raman Hui, who co-directed Shrek the Third (2007), crafts a rambling but ultimately likable comic romp. His Shrek-like creature designs, while not especially inspired, clearly struck a chord with the Chinese public sparking the inevitable merchandising boom. Shunning photo-realism for a cartoony quality, the pudgy, pastel-shaded likes of Wu Ba are decidedly toddler friendly yet the film's violence and racy humour exhibits a harder edge.
That curious but, for seasoned Asian film fanatics, charming schizophrenic quality establishes Monster Hunt as a modern successor to those wild and wacky Taiwanese children's fantasies from the Eighties and Nineties (e.g. Kung Fu Wonderchild (1986), Magic of Spell (1988), Twelve Animals (1990)). Although sedate by comparison to their delirious pace, the film pulls off some genuinely funny and engaging moments along with offbeat ideas that are pretty daring for family fare. These include a comically grotesque sequence worthy of the Brothers Grimm where a sexy gourmet chef prepares to serve two monster kids in human disguise to salivating human customers and the hero being impregnated with a monster baby! In a dynamic still rare in mainstream cinema here the male lead is passive and empathetic while the heroine is forthright and selfish as well as a martial arts badass. The plot tries to fashion an allegory for learning to overcome prejudice and that goodness comes in different physical forms. However a climactic twist undermines the message for the sake of a spectacular finale.
Raman Hui does a fair job orchestrating various manic action set-pieces. He has the benefit of an enthusiastic cast, notably likable leads Bai Baihe (who stepped in for re-shoots after original star Kai Ko was arrested on drugs charges) and Jing Boran and seasoned Hong Kong comedians Eric Tsang and Sandra Ng, who invest their roles with a great deal of energy. Only Jiang Wu seems a little lost as to what he is doing here. The film does lean towards nonsensical silliness but evokes some pathos for forlorn monster baby Wu Ba and manages to bring Tianxin's own subplot full circle with a poignant finale. Inevitably Monster Hunt 2 (2018) followed and was an even bigger hit.