Monster Hunt 2 (Zhuo yao ji 2)

China (2018) Dir. Raman Hui

Considering the first Monster Hunt film was at one point the highest grossing domestic film in China’s box office history, a sequel was not just inevitable but guaranteed while the first round of receipts were still being counted. And whilst Wolf Warrior 2 still holds on to the top spot Monster Hunt 2 is nipping hungrily at its heels as well as establishing a profitable new franchise to milk dry.

The story picks up shortly after the end of the first film with adorable radish creature Wuba now living in the Monster Realm. Yet the Monster King is still keen to rid himself of the biggest threat to his existence and mounts a kidnap attempt on Wuba, who flees to safety, inadvertently ending up back in the human world. Wuba ends up with a fellow monster named BenBen, who is working for unscrupulous gambler Tu (Tony Leung).

Meanwhile Wuba’s human parents Tianyin (Jing Boran) and Xiaolan (Baihe Bai) are throwing themselves into their monster hunting to help get over missing Wuba. When outnumbered during one mission, the pair receive help from Yunqing (Tony Yang) of the Monster Hunt Bureau, and upon recognising Tianyin’s name, offers to help him find his missing father.

One thing that becomes immediately apparent about this sequel is how much Raman Hui learned from the first film, specifically the story, boasting a much more straightforward plot this time around. Using three writers this time instead of one, we have a rare instance of many cooks not spoiling the broth, yielding an uncluttered tale that is both surprisingly coherent and easy to follow.  

But like its predecessor, the aim is to appeal to younger audiences with its often base slapstick humour and cute cast of characters, with any instances of direct threat to Wuba’s life toned down to avoid causing nightmares – in other words there are no concerns about Wuba being chopped up and becoming a key ingredient of a casserole like last time!

The theme being propagated once again is the importance of family and admittedly, it is laid on pretty thick, to the point Tianyin literally sums it up for us in the denouement, just in case anybody over the age of five may have missed it. It’s not as patronising as it may sound, but it is one step away from explaining the bleeding obvious.

In getting this point across the “families” in question are inter-species – Wuba, Tianyin, and Xiaolan, and Tu and BenBen – suggesting a family unit doesn’t necessarily have to be defined by shared DNA, (although Tianyin did give birth to Wuba). The search for Tianyin’s father isn’t that integral to the main story, but with two more sequels planned, this might just be planting the seeds for a future plot.

Back to this film and there are two concurrent story arcs to follow that converge in the final act. Tianyan and Xiaolan aid the Bureau in tracking down a mother and son monster that are due to be killed but they take pity on them and try to free them. In researching his father’s past, Tianyan learns his father’s benevolence towards monsters made him unpopular within the Bureau, deepening the mystery of his disappearance.

Tu on the other hand has a mountain of debts because of his gambling, and is forced to don various disguises to try to win enough to pay his debtors back. Unfortunately, one of them is Lady Zhu (Li Yuchun), who also wants to marry Tu as well as be repaid but when she learns Tu knows where Wuba is, she agrees that handing him over to her will clear the debt.

In what is almost a retelling of the how the Wuba-Tianyin-Xiaolan relationship began in the first film, a series of misadventures brings this new trio together, most notably BenBen and Wuba, whilst Tu is more concerned with using Wuba to clear his debts. But if we’ve learned anything Wuba has an irresistible knack for charming his way into people’s hearts, but could sneaky Tu be the exception?

What the streamlined plotting allows for is more action, with two huge scenes inside the first ten minutes – and that is following a Bollywood style dance number for the opening credits. But it’s not all manic battles and comedy set pieces, things settle down to let the characters develop, in particular Tianyin and Xiaolan whose initial union in the first film was rather unconvincing.

Given time to rectify this, they grow as a couple, showing signs of bonding and bouncing off each other more naturally than before, along with addressing the gender role balance of Xiaolan being the fighter with the hitherto milquetoast Tianyin learning new skills and getting stuck in with the fighting. Add Xiaolan being unsuccessfully wooed by a weapons inventor (Da Peng) and this coupling is starting to feel real at last.

The two returning leads don’t miss a beat in resuming their roles even with the subtle changes but they are upstaged by popular veteran Tony Leung. It seems scoring a top name for a sequel of successful film is en vogue in China, even if it entails said megastar slipping outside of their comfort zone, which Leung appears to relish here as the comedic but charismatic rogue Tu.

Of course, it could be argued that Wuba is the real star of the film, this time joined by BenBen and a whole host of other monsters that reveal a huge leap in quality of the animation from the first film A little help from Hollywood SFX giants ILM doesn’t do any harm either, taking the fantasy elements of the visuals and settings to new levels.

Monster Hunt 2 may not be better than its predecessor in a Godfather II sense but is a marked improvement in all aspects whilst staying true to its origins – in other words, another hugely enjoyable slice of fantasy fun for the family, with more to come no doubt.