Generic. That pretty much sums up the long-delayed animated feature of The Tiger’s Apprentice. Based on Laurence Yep’s 2003 novel of the same name and adapted by David Magee (The Little Mermaid) and Christopher Yost (Thor: Ragnarok), the story is a familiar and dumbed-down Westernised point-of-view on the fantastical Chinese mythology, which in this case, the twelve zodiac animals.
The Tiger’s Apprentice wastes little time pouncing straight to the action with a Hong Kong-set prologue, where we learn a woman named Mrs Lee (voiced by scene-stealing Tan Kheng Hua) and the little Tom (Lydie Loots) encounter otherworldly dragon-like creatures and an evil sorceress, Loo (Michelle Yeoh).
It turns out that Loo is determined to get her hands on the precious purple stone capable of unleashing the power of the Phoenix. We also learn that Mrs Lee has been the guardian of the purple stone. She even has protectors in the form of shapeshifting human/zodiac animal hybrids led by tiger Hu (Henry Golding).
Fast-forward to 15 years old in San Francisco, Tom (Brandon Soo Hoo) is now a high-school teenager. He has to put up with his eccentric grandma, who has a penchant for decorating their house with lots of amulets and charms. The past finally catches up on the elderly Mrs Lee when Loo returns.
Long story short, Tom finds himself unwittingly becomes the next guardian of the purple stone and Hu is responsible for looking after him, showing him the ways and introducing him to the rest of the zodiac animals. Among them are dragon Mistral (Sandra Oh), rodent Sidney (Bowen Yang) as well as pig (Deborah S. Craig), rabbit (Greta Lee) and rooster (Jo Koy).
The Tiger’s Apprentice is only 84 minutes long but it sure feels like an eternity. The story falters the most with weak character arcs as I was expecting the coming-of-age angle surrounding Tom’s journey. Relatable themes like responsibility and facing fears are incorporated but they are all merely superficial. The overreliance on juvenile humour often distracts more than it should. There is a strangely lack of chemistry between Tom and Hu — a wasted opportunity that could have developed the potentially strong master-and-apprentice narrative angle. It doesn’t help either that the rest of the otherwise stellar cast doesn’t leave much of a lasting impression voicing the shapeshifting zodiac animals.
Having Michelle Yeoh on board to voice the antagonist Loo could have been wickedly fun. But she is sadly underutilised in this movie. The overall animation is nothing to shout about but I do appreciate the fluidity of the fast-moving action sequences. Too bad the stakes are almost non-existent and even if The Tiger’s Apprentice is aimed squarely at the younger audiences, does it have to be such a limp effort? The problem with playing it too safe ultimately sacrifices the emotional and dramatic impacts of the movie.
Enlisting Raman Hui, best known for his works in Monster Hunt and its sequel looks as if he’s more of a work-for-hire coming up with the utmost formulaic Chinese mythology-themed action-fantasy template.
The Tiger’s Apprentice will be streaming on Paramount+ on February 2, 2024.