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Beijing — Despite a production budget of $12 million and enticing publicity that promises more cultural authenticity and meaner martial arts than Kung Fu Panda, the China-produced 3D animation Legend of a Rabbit hobbles rather than hops. Featuring a kung-fu rabbit kicking the ass of a big, bad panda, it has potential to be a cheeky finger-up to the Kung Fu Panda franchise, but ultimately, there is not enough eye-popping action, incident or humor to nourish the congee-thin plot. Under the direction of Sun Lijun, artistic values and themes are too homespun to create that aw shucks visual impact needed to enchant and create a longer-lasting fan base. Nevertheless, competent 3D effects and a handful of picturesque scenes make it still worth a day out for families with young kids.
All-out international marketing months before its release resulted in a bunch of pre-sales at Berlin’s European Film Market, later capped by a pay-TV deal in several Asia-Pacific regions with Warner’s Cartoon Network. Sandwiched between Kung Fu Panda 2 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon when it released domestically, it was understandably inched out by these box office leviathans.
Legend starts out in an unnamed ancient Chinese capital, where the Master (Pu Cunxin) runs the prestigious Huxiaoguan (Howling Tiger) martial arts academy. He sends his disciple Biggie (Zhang Yishan) to fetch his runaway daughter Peony (Yan Ni). Soon after Biggie is gone, the master is ambushed by Slash (Zhang Fengyi), his Panda disciple. He escapes with fatal injuries, and makes it to the doorstep of Tu (Fan Wei), a portly, dopey rabbit who makes stuffed pancakes for a living. The Master transfers his lifetime’s fighting powers to Tu (if it’s this easy, why do his disciples bother training at all?) and entrusts him to pass on his seal to Peony. The clueless Tu is unaware he’s inherited this awesome kung fu. Nor does he realize that the svelte bobcat who saves him from bumbling bamboo grove bandits is Peony herself.
Tu, Peony and Biggie become travel companions. Upon arriving in the Capital, Tu accidentally gets recruited as a kitchen hand at Huxiaoguan, which is now controlled by Slash and his beastly henchmen. To validate his claims to head the academy, Slash challenges all martial artists to a tournament with the aim of defeating them all.
It doesn’t take an expert on Chinese wuxia novels or films to guess that Tu will rise to the moment at the tournament. It doesn’t matter that a tale about Every Animal unleashing his inner power is a tried and tired formula (Kung Fu Panda 1 & 2 borrowed from it), as the narrative can be padded with any number of dramatic variations. Yet, screenwriters Zou Jingzhi and Wang Yanqing haven’t pull any rabbits out of their hats. Storytelling technique is straight as an arrow and rhythm is hardly rollicking — the mistaken identity ploy, for one, drags and delays the climactic duels for too long. Action sequences, reportedly choreographed by a Taichi master, look convincing but won’t add a lot more entertainment value for a young, undiscerning audience.
3D effects, though not spectacular, are generally watchable, with a consistent and fluid stream of movement reaching out of and across the screen. One scene where Tu turns pancake dough making into a lively dance number and another scene where Peony hops onto a hang-glider then sails into the shimmering night sky gain visual verve through the 3D medium. While backdrop scenery range from sketchy to refined, rendering of figures is equally uneven. Tu, Slash and Peony are vividly detailed, down to every hair, but physical features of other characters are more rudimentary.
The mild-mannered and infinitely good-natured Tu is a refreshing alternative to Hollywood animated heroes, who are given to hyperactivity and compulsive wise-cracking. The image of a thuggish, grimacing evil panda Slash is also a mildly amusing antidote to their cuddly, over-cute counterparts in other animations, especially Japanese ones. Other characters, however, make a light impression.
Opened in China on July 11.
Sales: Tianjin North Film Group
Production companies: Tianjin North Film Group, China Golddeal Investment Co. Ltd, Beijing Century Colourful Butterfly Animation Design Limited Company, Beijing Film Academy.
Voice cast: Fan Wei, Yan Ni, Zhang Fengyi, Zhang Yishan, Pu Cunxin.
Director: Sun Lijun
Screenwriters: Zou Jingzhi, Zou Han.
Producers: Dong Fachang, Xue Jiajing, Jiang Ping, Zhou Chao.
Executive producer: Wang Dafang.
Production designer: Fang Cheng.
Music: Peter Kam.
Martial arts choreographer: Ming Jianjun
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