Slick CGI Action Overcomes a Generic Plot

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Summary

  • Great fight scenes, Chinese mythology and symbols, and decent CGI animation elevate this cultural action fantasy.
  • The protagonist is dull and the script is rote with a predictable outcome, lacking in originality.
  • The supporting ensemble of zodiac warriors and the formidable villain add depth and excitement to the story.


A bullied teen raised by a doting grandmother learns of his magical destiny to protect the mortal world. The Tiger’s Apprentice, adapted from the novels by Laurence Yep, incorporates Chinese mythology and cultural symbols into the standard underdog saves the day narrative. A few surprises elevate a rote script that struggles to differentiate a generic protagonist. We’ve seen this type of character before countless times and frankly done better. That said, the supporting ensemble of shapeshifting critters, an umbrella-toting villain, and slick action scenes add just enough fire to fuel this CGI adventure for children.

The Tiger’s Apprentice opens on a Hong Kong bridge during the 2009 Lunar New Year. Grandma Lee (Kheng Hua Tan) drives a gurgling baby Tom (Lydie Loots) with Yaoguai — demonic shadow spirits — in fierce pursuit. She wonders aloud what happened to her backup. The Circle of Twelve, mystical zodiac animal warriors, appear out of nowhere to defend the child. Tiger (Henry Golding) leads the charge against their attackers. They appear victorious until the true enemy arrives, but the evil sorceress Loo (Michelle Yeoh) isn’t easily defeated.

Fifteen years later, at San Francisco High School, Tom (Brandon Soo Hoo) gets pummelled for refusing to back down. He won’t let the ogre Rudy (Josh Zuckerman) insult Grandma as a weird old witch. Tom hurles Rudy into the ceiling with a shocking burst of power that leaves everyone stunned. Tom skateboards home with Rav (Leah Lewis), the cute new girl, in tow. Why was Rudy making fun of his grandmother? Rav understands when they arrive at a house covered in charms and trinkets. An exasperated Tom tears some of them down as he plods inside.


Tom’s Secret Destiny

The Tiger's Apprentice

The Tiger’s Apprentice

2.5 /5

Release Date
February 2, 2024

Director
Raman Hui , Yong Duk Jhun , Paul Watling

Runtime
1hr 39min

Writers
David Magee , Christopher L. Yost , Laurence Yep

Pros

  • Great fight scenes
  • Chinese mythology and symbols
  • Decent CGI animation
Cons

  • A dull protagonist
  • Rote script with a predictable outcome

Grandma wants to know exactly how Tom got that black eye, but he can’t explain what happened. A knock at the door signals their cover has been blown. Hu, the Tiger in human form, brushes past a befuddled Tom. He sensed Tom’s accidental use of Fashu, powerful magic. What happened to the protective charms guarding the door? A sinister hiss signals the Yaoguai have found them, and Loo will not be far behind.

Tom is essentially Luke Skywalker, The Karate Kid, and Harry Potter rolled into a tidy package. He’s a seemingly hapless nerd with a big secret hidden from a dangerous baddie by loyal protectors. The film never fully explains why Grandma kept Tom’s true identity a secret, or the reason for Hu remaining out of sight. Logic dictates Tom would need every second of training to face an adversary like Loo, but that certainly isn’t the case here. Tom must learn martial arts and how to control his Fashu like a dropout cramming for the GED. Hu tries to be a capable mentor but isn’t exactly Yoda, Mr. Miyagi, or Dumbledore. The Tiger begrudgingly needs the help of the other zodiac warriors before Loo achieves her apocalyptic objective.

Screenwriters David Magee (Finding Neverland) and Christopher Yost (Thor franchise, The Mandalorian) have Tom as purely reactionary to events that concern him. He’s like a balloon blowing in the wind. The character isn’t unlikable, just not remarkable in a compelling way. He’s got the requisite quip quota for a few chuckles, but lacks the chutzpah that forges a winning hero. Tom never really kicks butt and takes names. He’s kind of tame, even when finally in command of his extraordinary abilities.

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Zodiac Warriors

Hu and his gang of zodiac cohorts are the film’s primary saving grace. They bicker constantly in animal and human form, but get their act together when fists and paws are needed. Cynthia (Lucy Liu), a frog with a dumpling shop, and Sydney (Bowen Yang), a kleptomaniac rat, are comic relief while the others, including an explosive goat, beat Loo’s shadow goons to a misty pulp. Their interactions could have worked as the central storyline with Tom as a subplot; they’re much more interesting.

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Michelle Yeoh commands the screen as the voice of Loo. She’s got a great character arc that employs guile and formidable strength. Loo deceives to suit the situation. She then resorts to beast-mode tactics to accomplish her evil goals. The zodiac warriors and Tom quickly realize she cannot be defeated through straight combat. The film’s best lesson is that your enemy may always be stronger. The path to victory doesn’t have to be direct confrontation.

Tom, Hu, and his Grandmother inside a forcefield in The Tiger's Apprentice
Paramount+

The Tiger’s Apprentice works as a cultural action fantasy. Tom and the zodiac animals leaping from rooftops while battling the Yaoguai look pretty darn cool. The fight scenes overcome plot and character deficiencies. Kids and adults alike will get a kick out of Chinese martial arts with a magical flair. But, it’s not going to have the staying power of something like Kung Fu Panda.

The Tiger’s Apprentice is a production of Paramount Animation, New Republic Pictures, and Jane Startz Productions.

Stream exclusively on Paramount+

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