In the continuing saga of China’s attempts to catch up to the world’s powerhouses of animated cinema, Warrior King drops this weekend at AMC Grapevine Mills. It’s based on the Tibetan epic poem King Gesar, and if you’re looking at this through the lens of the atrocities that China has visited on Tibet, this might strike you as a grotesque act of cultural appropriation. I have a more salient criticism: This movie isn’t good.
The version you’ll be seeing is in English, and it seems to be the only version, though the matching of the character’s lips to the dialogue is off enough that you might be fooled into thinking there’s a Mandarin-language original out there somewhere. The protagonist is Chori (voiced by Katie Leigh as a boy and Brandon Hunt as a man), who’s born the son of a village chieftain (voiced by Grant Corvin) who dies protecting his pregnant wife (voiced by Marisa Blake) from a demon. Years later, Chori and his mother are exiled from the village after he’s blamed for the death of a precious yak in the village’s herd. Under the name of Gesar given to him by a guardian angel, he has to save his ill mother by finding a fabled ginseng root — the thing must be magic, seeing that it has eyes and sprouts legs to run with — and then saving his community after an evil warlord (voiced by Blake Talley) takes over.
The animation has the blocky polygonal look of a PlayStation 2 game, lacking the sinuous beauty of the best Japanese anime. When Chori / Gesar turns his head, the spikes of his hair remain in place, much like the early iterations of Sonic the Hedgehog’s fur. It doesn’t matter whether director Lu Qi was going for this look or not, because it doesn’t fit the story that it’s telling. A flashback sequence in the middle takes up the drawing style of Tibetan religious paintings, and I wish the entire film had been done up that way. The movie is rated PG-13, and deservedly so, because we see a giant purple caterpillar demon tear a yak apart. This comes after Chori kills a different demon by stabbing it in its eyes. The violence here might have served to give this movie a more visceral feel than its Hollywood counterparts, but again the animation gets in the way because it’s too stylized.
The look of the film does go much better when the film is depicting animals and the shifting terrain of the Himalayan setting. The bright red horse that Chori rides into battle is a striking creation. That can’t make up for the emotionally crude treatment of the story — the bad guy tries to murder Chori as a baby. The script by Lu Wunan and Wang Yunsheng conceives an interesting idea in depicting Chori needlessly jeopardizing himself and others because he wants so badly to be a hero, but that isn’t followed up on. How I wish the movie had cut the seriousness of this piece with the humor of Ne Zha or Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West. For academics like me who follow trends in world cinema, Warrior King does hold some interest. For most of you, though, you’re better off catching the Super Mario Bros. movie as it re-opens this weekend for your animated entertainment.
Voices by Brandon Hunt and Katie Leigh. Directed by Lu Qi. Written by Lu Wunan and Wang Yunsheng. Rated PG-13.