Taiwan continues the tradition puppet theatre or “glove puppetry” which is the literal translation of budaixi. Their latest effort comes from the renowned Huang’s family company, Pili International Multimedia. It’s a wuxia that combines puppets and CGI to create an epic adventure. The story is about Mo, his sister, Tong, and a wooden robot named Arti-C that was inherited from their father. Arti-C is very capable at martial arts but Mo’s father was accused of treason and killed for having built it. Mo notices that Arti-C is beginning to deteriorate when he prematurely shuts down during a fight. This is because his power source, known as the Origin, is not infinite and is beginning to wane. Mo must find a way to replace Arti-C’s power source and it turns out it can be found in the territory of a mysterious clan, who seemingly fight with dangerous sandworms and other nasty looking creatures. But all is not what it seems.
From a technical standpoint, the animated film combines puppets with green screens and CGI effects very effectively. Sharp eyes will be able to tell what is CGI and what is not but it’s mostly so well integrated that if you do what you’re supposed to do and just follow the story, you won’t notice the differences. The costume design and overall visual design of the environments is cohesive being elaborate and wonderfully detailed with vivid colors. The fighting scenes are well executed and are comparable to real life martial arts fantasy fights. Puppets get slammed into walls with impacts as the wall or the floors cracks and crumble. They leap and flip, clash swords and hit in a believable manner. The amount of work to accomplish this must have been staggering. The feature was also filmed in 3D, I initially did not know that Fantasia would display this in 3D and despite a bit of a smudge on my pair of 3D glasses that I couldn’t manage to wipe off, I found the 3D in the film to be quite well done. If anything it gave me a better appreciation of the puppets which seem to lend themselves well to 3D.
Story-wise, it’s nothing particularly new. It gets muddled a bit at times but the main plot isn’t complicated and has an environmental message. Tong is amusing as the younger sister who constantly feels neglected by her brother but still loves him deeply. They are also joined by a talking duck early on who provides comic relief but has no involvement on the main story. The main disadvantage is an inherent limitation of puppets and that is the lack of facial expressions. The eyes can blink but that is the only movement you see on the face. It is largely reliant on the voice actors and body gestures to convey emotion but there were definitely times where facial expression would’ve been helpful and more effective. Besides that my only have potential gripe with the ending where the death of a character seemed preventable or unnecessary but I would have to see it again to be sure. This is worth watching due to the rarity of puppets and the amazing technical achievement. Fans of martial arts and stop-motion will enjoy this entertaining film. Based on the title, it seems like we can expect sequels if it is successful.
Seen in the theatre at Fantasia 2015