Just in time for Lunar New Year, comes the premiere of the animated children’s film, The Tiger’s Apprentice from director Raman Hui. Originally planned for a theatrical release in 2022 which was the year of the tiger, the pandemic pushed back the release date and Paramount instead opted for a straight-to-streaming release.
An adaptation of Laurence Yep’s action-adventure fantasy children’s novel of the same name, the film follows high school student Tom Lee (Brandon Soo Hoo) who lives with his eccentric grandmother (Kheng Hua Tan) in San Francisco. One day, he discovers that his family possesses magical powers and are tasked as guardians to protect a sacred stone that contains a phoenix, which is pursued by the evil Loo (Michelle Yeoh). He is guided by Mr. Hu (Henry Golding), one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals who are powerful warriors that help protect the lineage of guardians and can shapeshift between their respective animal and human forms.
Notably, the inclusion of the guardians being associated with Chinese zodiacs departs from Yep’s novel where Mr. Hu (a tiger), Mistral (a dragon), and Monkey (a monkey, obviously) are the guardians of the stone and although they’re animals in the zodiac calendar, they don’t have any actual relation to the zodiacs.
For The Tiger’s Apprentice, screenwriters David McGee and Christopher Yost not only add the overriding idea of the zodiacs, but also include the remaining nine animals with varying levels of involvement. It’s an unnecessary addition that feels to be only in service of padding the voice cast with star power. Yeoh, Lucy Liu, and Sandra Oh have appropriately sized supporting roles but other actors like Jo Koy, Greta Lee, and Sherry Cola have such little screen time, it comes as a big disappointment.
The animation is sincerely stunning — the fight choreography, intricate transitions, and animation style are visually exciting. However, the rest of the production is a letdown. The plot and dialogue seem confused, elaborating on background details that feel unimportant like his school life, while skipping over explanations that would be welcomed such as the history of the phoenix stone’s guardians, or Hu’s reputedly intimate relationship with the Lee family.
Moreover, the movie tries to shoehorn as much popular Chinese culture as possible, while still appealing to a mainstream American audience which has become familiar only with martial arts, dim sum, and apparently Michelle Yeoh. Soo Hoo, who voices the main character Tom, doesn’t even pronounce 嫲嫲 / Maa Maa, the Cantonese word for paternal grandmother, properly.
The best children’s animated movies are the ones that the whole family can enjoy, with a good mix of jokes for all ages. Those are the types of movies that parents and kids will sit down to replay over and over, eventually remembering them as childhood favourites. The Tiger’s Apprentice is a fine choice if you’ve got an hour and 24 minutes to kill time or keep a young child occupied, but it’s no classic.