The Tiger’s Apprentice sees Michelle Yeoh and Lucy Liu take on a classic children’s fantasy novel

The Tiger’s Apprentice sees Michelle Yeoh and Lucy Liu take on a classic children’s fantasy novel
  • PublishedApril 4, 2024

As the old excuse — sorry, saying — goes, there are only seven stories in existence, and Paramount Animation’s new adventure The Tiger’s Apprentice is certainly running with one of them.

Adapted from the popular 2003 children’s novel by Laurence Yep, and with an all-star voice cast that includes Oscar winner Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Past Lives’ Greta Lee, the movie finds a young dreamer called up by destiny to defend the universe against evil. It’s the age-old fantasy of every teenager with delusions of heroism — or at least the adults who create fiction about them.

Still, despite the film’s generic take on its source material, there’s more than enough colour, energy and rapid-fire action to keep younger viewers engaged.

Much of the movie’s charm derives from its storybook San Francisco, an expressively sketched, culturally rich metropolis where Chinatown is full of dim sum shops that transform into magical realms, and where scuzzy alleyways end in inter-dimensional portals.

It’s home to 15-year-old Chinese American Tom Lee (voiced by Brandon Soo Hoo) and his grandmother (Kheng Hua Tan), a mysterious old eccentric whose ramshackle house, stacked with archaic trinkets, resembles a temple.

Turns out gran is the keeper of an ancient stone called the Phoenix, and Tom is heir apparent to be its next guardian.

With its power to both create and destroy worlds, the magic rock is coveted by the imperious, shape-shifting sorceress Loo (Michelle Yeoh), whose villainy is bested only by her style — she dresses like Maleficent in a Chinese ghost movie, and keeps a menagerie of gaseous demons to do her bidding.

The Tiger's Apprentice (2024), Michelle Yeoh
Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All At Once) lends her voice to antagonist Loo. (Supplied: Paramount+)

Before you can say “all-purpose training montage”, Tom is taken under the paw of his new mentor Mr Hu (Henry Golding), a walking torso in a Y2K-era Wolverine leather jacket who can transform himself into a tiger. This gruff beefcake is one of the 12 Chinese zodiac warriors who watch over the guardian of the stone — a crew that includes a sleek and sassy dragon (Sandra Oh), a trickster rat with the voice of a cartoon twink (SNL’s Bowen Yang), and a goat who, well, performs all your favourite screaming goat memes from 2012.

As that reference suggests, a movie adaptation of The Tiger’s Apprentice has been in various forms of development since way back in 2008. The film finally went into production in 2019, only to be postponed by the pandemic, disrupted by an abrupt change in director, and troubled by rumours of negative working conditions circulated online by various disgruntled employees.

Whether all that rocky production history shows up on screen is up for debate, though the movie is definitely a mixed bag aesthetically.

While there are rousing sequences of fluid, visually dynamic action, there’s also a clunky, inexpressive look to many of the human characters, whose designs sometimes recall the rudimentary models of early CG animation.

The screenplay, written by David Magee (The Little Mermaid) and Christopher Yost (Thor: Ragnarok), also seems to have taken some sizeable shortcuts with the material, stalling in momentum right after a mid-film training montage, and rushing to the finale without sufficiently escalating the drama.

Wheeling out the old character archetypes of the hero’s journey isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course, especially in a movie that’s ultimately dedicated to a simple and noble message that prioritises the power of the heart and the mind over violence.

But while there are plenty of rich elements of Chinese mythology baked into the premise — and it’s obviously great to see such a degree of representation for Chinese American characters — the flat storytelling tends to iron out any nuance in the tale, sacrificing something more daring for generic story beats and warmed-over jokes. (Perhaps the only real surprise is that the movie withholds the inevitable Eye of the Tiger needle-drop ’til the end credits. Now that’s progress.)

Animated still of The Tiger's Apprentice, featuring 12 animal warriors based off the Chinese Zodiac.
Talking to Geeks of Color, Yang praised The Tiger’s Apprentice’s celebration of the Chinese zodiac and culture, calling the story “quite universal and human”.(Supplied: Paramount+)

Any potential for a coming-of-age metaphor also goes unexplored, which is disappointing when you consider the inventiveness and cultural specificity that a movie like Pixar’s Turning Red brought to its similarly themed story of newly awakened destiny.

Taken as a fast and sometimes funny slice of familiar storytelling, though, The Tiger’s Apprentice isn’t without its modest pleasures.

Director and veteran DreamWorks animator Raman Hui keeps things whirring with high-wire chases across city rooftops, daring escapes and excursions into a pop-surreal magical realm that have a nice sense of wonder.

Animated image of a white tiger and boy in yellow hoodie in the foreground. In the back, a dragon with a monkey on its head.
The film’s director is Raman Hui, with Paul Watling and Yong Duk Jhun credited as co-directors. (Supplied: Paramount+)

There’s also a pretty neat climactic battle set atop the spire of San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid, a skyscraper whose peak is surrounded by black clouds that — in a possible nod to 1984’s Ghostbusters — look like a very spooky portal to hell.

And the cast are all committed, especially a velvety, villainous Yeoh, and an amusing Lucy Liu, affectionately playing up the cliches as a cranky dim sum restaurateur.

While it’s not about to become anyone’s idea of an animated classic, The Tiger’s Apprentice is a cheerful enough diversion for kids who’ve exhausted the Kung Fu Panda series. It’s just a shame the filmmakers weren’t able to wring something more original from the material, considering the talent at their disposal.


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