Animated Movie

The Tiger’s Apprentice

At first glance, the existence of “The Tiger’s Apprentice” would seem to be a grand advance for the cause of Asian representation in animated cinema based on the casting alone—giving voice to the characters is a Who’s Who of celebrated Asian actors that includes Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Bowen Yang and Greta Lee. Based on the resulting film, it seems as if the filmmakers spent so much time and energy recruiting the undeniably impressive cast that they had little left to invest in the film itself. The end result is a movie that has a couple of amusing moments and nice visual flourishes but not nearly enough to combat the resounding mediocrity of the storytelling.

At the center is Tom Lee (Brandon Soo Hoo), who has been raised since infancy by his grandmother (Kheng Hua Tan) in a rambling San Francisco home that is so festooned with tchotchkes and talismans that many in the neighborhood suspect that she is a witch. He seems like an ordinary 15-year-old high school student but when he somehow sends a bully flying into the ceiling during a between-classes scrape, he begins to suspect that something is off. Unfortunately, this act attracts the attention of Loo (Yeoh), a malevolent figure who wants a magical necklace that Grandma has been guarding and which has powers that could lead to unimaginable destruction were it to fall into the wrong hands.

Now in possession of the necklace, Tom is rescued by Hu (Golding), a tiger who can change into human form and who is one of the twelve representations of the symbols of the Chinese Zodiac who have sworn to protect mankind from the evil that Loo represents. Hu reluctantly takes on the role of mentor for Tom and begins to teach him the ways of being a guardian himself. He also introduces him to the other members of the team, the most prominent of whom include the dragon Mistral (Oh) and the sly rat thief Sidney (Yang). Numerous battles between the forces of good and evil ensue until the fate of the world finds itself resting in Tom’s hands.

Once you get past that impressive cast list and the initial allure of the Asian-specific setting, themes and characters, there really isn’t much to “The Tiger’s Apprentice” that is new, innovative or creative. I have not read the 2003 YA novel by Laurence Yep (the first of a trilogy) but a cursory glimpse of the plot recap on Wikipedia suggests that a story that once explicitly attempted to bring Chinese mythology into a modern context has been smoothed out until it feels like just another fantasy epic in the mode of Harry Potter and various copycats in which an ordinary kid discovers that they have extraordinary powers that require several volumes to explore in full. Instead of giving the younger viewers something new and potentially interesting, the filmmakers are merely content with offering more of the same old thing. The result is one of those peculiar films where you can easily anticipate every plot development long before it is deployed yet struggle to recall anything that happened in it afterwards.

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