At some point I swear I started writing this, but I can’t find it for the life of me. I feel like putting this to my Objective Review System would be a good alternative to something more free-form, but I do admit a little hesitance.
Regardless, this is a May 1997 movie that one would in a bubble assume was a bit older to capitalize on Turtle Mania, though in practice it released after both the Turtles and the Power Rangers were already well beyond their "mania" phases, the latter already on its 5th season and looking for all the world to be on its way out with Power Rangers Turbo debuting a month earlier, the former launching the widely reviled Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation the following September after having worn out its welcome in theaters four years earlier, which also marked drastic shifts in the popular cartoon that would see it last for only 3 more of those 4 years before falling into a comparatively merciful lull. It was "competing" with neither of them, nor were there any coattails left attached to either of their ragged backsides to ride, and it was comfortable enough in doing what it thought was something different to take a light jab at the idea in dialogue. While many people seem to invite comparisons to them both, no less than Roger Ebert having done so contemporaneously, any such comparisons are purely superficial and its true DNA lies far closer to Chinese wuxia (wire-fu) movies that general audiences were less familiar with, seeing as that stuff had had its heyday decades earlier and so much of what people knew of was poorly-translated VHSes in faded sleeves that sat basically invisible at your local Blockbuster. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would not be out until 3 years later in 2000 to bring more attention to wuxia, with Hero following it in 2002 and House of Flying Daggers in 2004, but arguably Warriors of Virtue walked so they could run.
So how does it hold up? I mean, let’s start with how you can watch it, because time has not been kind and the quality you’re dealing with tends to be VHS rips, but you can watch it legally for free on Tubi, which you can enjoy the letterboxed theatrical release of at this point, which was not the case last time I looked for it there. Props to Tubi for caring. The alternative, if you’re hoping to buy it, is going to be a bootleg DVD stretched to widescreen from the 4:3 VHS. You can, if you’re like me, through sheer stubbornness and wiring that would immediately make any electrical engineer in a mile radius spontaneously combust, get this onto a CRT TV at the original aspect ratio. So in a word, Tubi. It’s free. The ads are probably less annoying than you’d get on YouTube. One might even go so far as to call them good, which is more than most YouTube ads can say, and while they tend to be longer, they’re generally fairly entertaining and keep an acceptable variety. It’s not ideal, but it’s about the best most people can hope for.
10: Flawless. It will ruin you to anything else.
9: Amazing. You will ignore major flaws elsewhere because of it.
8: Great. A selling point of the movie and will compensate moderate flaws.
7: Good. Stands well on its own and may compensate minor flaws.
6: Interesting, but not particularly special.
5: Uninspired, but passable.
4: Lacking, but tolerable.
3: Annoying, but may be compensated elsewhere.
2: Bad, but not a deal-breaker.
1: Deal-breaker. You will cringe at every occurrence.
0: Reason enough not to see this movie on its own.
Here we’ll cover the basics of the story from an ideas perspective.
Ryan is a boy with a bum leg who, tragically, is a total sports buff. His father seems to be away on extended business of some sort; his mother is a realtor who’s away from before school hours until anywhere from suppertime to after dark and far from a domestic goddess. He’s often left to his own devices and has formed an intergenerational friendship with the owner of the local Chinese restaurant, who seems to both feed and look after him more often than is probably appropriate without adoption papers. Something gives and said owner gives him the Manuscript of Tao. Ryan is then transported to the magical land of
Oz Tao by a tornado whirlpool, a beautiful land under attack by an evil old witch immortal sorceror warlord in search of shoes to die for a good book for someone to read him, and our protagonist just happens to have walked on scene with exactly that. Naturally, our villain simply must have it, and our protagonist, by necessity, in the process. This being the sort of place of Chinese philosophy it is, the setting has serious pre-industrial Chinese vibes despite its inhabitants being quite a bit more global, with the titular heroes being kangaroos and living in harmony with at least one rhino and water buffalo. Ryan is placed in a position where he’s the key to success in both sides of a war and eventually finds his position complicated by the realities that life isn’t simple and war is particularly messy.
For lack of a better place to talk about it, I will delve a bit into spoiler territory off the bat, so click here to jump to the score: BOING!
Tao is worth talking about because of what it is and isn’t. What it is is a world of magic and fantasy, with sprites flying around its natural areas, people with varying degrees of animal traits, and a source of life in the "lifesprings" that chug out some form of the mineral Zubrium. There’s some question of whether it’s real or not, though. And a little analysis says that it is, so here’s mine in spoiler text. It’s easy to peg one exact line as a potential breaking point where things seem likely to transition, where Brad calls Ryan a weenie for just standing around looking at the can of spray paint he’s been given to tag his way into the gang, as if all of the good parts of the story happen in the span of him contemplating it. The thing is, what happens after this point and what makes Ryan decide to actually go through with it is Chucky, his best friend, saying something incredibly stupid and rather hurtful (that Ryan is not capable), which he immediately seems to recognize, and there’s no reason Ryan would imagine his own best friend doing this after he’s been trying to play "voice of reason" the whole time. He also would have had no way of knowing how events would play out from then forward in what’s parallel between the beginning and ending. There’s also the fact the prologue establishes the issues in Tao before anything connects Ryan to it, so you already have indication that it exists ahead of time as its own thing. In addition, and more importantly, Ryan has not read the manuscript. Not a single word of it. He doesn’t have the slightest idea of what’s in it and therefore no capacity to imagine a world where it’s quintessential, no matter what his brain may have otherwise been able to cobble together out of pictures from his geography textbook. Even if you can argue that’s why he’s initially unable to read the manuscript, as all the pages are blank, that eventually changes without him having any opportunity to do so in his own world. You also have to examine the visual language of the white-out as one of transformation, spiritual ascent, and continuation in some form, where a fade to black is one more associated with endings or otherwise the "mundane." They could have faded to black and it could have been seen as indication of his death in the mortal sense, which is very much how he gets back and forth, but would have reduced the implication of Tao as being the last gasping of his dying brain, rather than him being "elsewhere," which is in itself rather dark for a kid to imagine. The use of the white-out means he doesn’t "die;" he "travels." His being placed back in his own world back at the critical moment of his decision rather than down a sewer pipe to just drown is both for his benefit and the viewer’s, to show what he took away from his journey rather than have someone fish him out of a water treatment plant having blown it. In this case, while normally experience is the one thing you never have until you need it, he’s allowed to take his experience back a step. But that experience comes from being immersed in a world that’s already full of everything he has to learn. It would be much easier to argue he got sucked into the book itself than that any of it comes out of his own brain. Which I don’t think is true, either, because the book changed the world of Tao in the past; the book itself could not have been anything it wasn’t before if it was going to change itself. But I digress. None of this would be solved by assuming he positively devoured the book off-screen, because then he’d know exactly what was in it instead of being unable to read it. Tao by all indications is a real place, somewhere, and that’s before you get to the rest of the material of the franchise.
As to why I feel the need to touch upon this, it’s mostly because in researching this, I saw reviews that were of the "and it was all a dream" mindset, which just kind of tells me that critics don’t always think critically. There’s quite a lot of that for this movie and while this isn’t a defense piece, I think if I’m going to be as objective as humanly possible on subjective art, I owe it to you the reader to debunk some of what’s out there, because there’s "unable to see past the superficial" and then there’s "unfamiliar with the language of the art form you’re criticizing." That’s like going into a restaurant and licking the floor for your food review.
Score: 7/10. Jokes aside, I can’t in good faith rate this more based on just the setting, but the implementation (rated later) is where it shines. I think it’s easy to get caught up in what’s derivative, but what’s derivative is only really superficial. It’s easy to compare it to The Wizard of Oz in the absolute broadest strokes the same way it’s easy to compare it to the Ninja Turtles because people generally aren’t educated enough in the various martial arts to tell one from another and "ninjas" especially at the time were shorthand for "anyone doing martial arts," never mind that general audiences at the time couldn’t have told you the difference between China and Japan much less named anything else that couldn’t be suffixed with "War" spotted the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica and a gun to their head. Of COURSE it got compared to the incredibly limited exposure anyone was familiar with. The production was confident enough in what it was doing to contrast itself with the other stuff out there, but that doesn’t make for an entertaining headline, which is to say reviewers did what anyone selling papers does and got reductive.
Going into this, you have to remember the target audience for this film was more or less "whoever feels a gaping Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles void from when it was good" and that it is very much a PG movie in the same vein as the first one of those, including some light swearing despite the young protagonist.
In terms of how the characters are written, it feels like their personalities are consistent, but their actions and motivations often turn on a dime specifically because the plot often needs something to be a certain way and the characters are ram-rodded into it rather than things getting a chance to breathe. This isn’t so much an issue with the characters as much as at some point pacing issues get compacted from execution straight into writing issues and there’s only so much you can do to work around that. Having read an interview with one of the two post editors working on arranging the final product (which I can’t seem to find at this point, or else I’d absolutely link it), they had something like half again as much material as ended up in the movie, but the way individual scenes happen, the problem is very much in the scenes in some cases, which is not to say that there might not have well be longer cuts of certain scenes where they got more time to breathe. I would LOVE to see the original script, but after a cursory search, I don’t think that that’s happening.
The plot tends to have not so much structural issues as pacing issues and lots of them, but I’ll rate that in a later section. What’s there is good, but in many ways it feels poorly prioritized, like the post editors wanted to make The Big Green and then ran out of The Big Green and begrudgingly tried to make Warriors of Virtue as coherent as possible to fill out the rest of the run time while holding out on more The Big Green canisters to materialize.
As for what the plot actually IS, it’s more or less a journey of self-discovery for Ryan, and a fight to save a dying world for everyone else of importance, or to escape it in the villains’ case. The thing tying everything together is that Ryan, as a "newcomer," is the only one able to read the Manuscript of Tao, which both sides of the conflict see as their key to victory. As such, both sides very much want both of them in their possession. Both sides thus spend most of the run with only one or the other, variously trying to butter Ryan up in hopes he’ll help them, and challenging Ryan’s black-and-white view of the world. The complexities here delve into some relatively heavy topics, including the trauma of accidentally taking a life, war having no clean "good guys" and "bad guys," and frankly just the horrors of war in general and what that can do to someone’s psyche.
Ryan is fairly realistically limited not by his disability, which disappears in Tao, but more by the fact he’s still very much a child, and now in a strange world, where all of the adults do the heavy lifting for the ongoing war effort. He ultimately splits his time almost evenly between the titular heroes and various secondary and tertiary characters, which is not to say this isn’t realistic, just that the movie has to balance its two main threads and while it does it competently with both in play, one gets the feeling that the bulk of the movie could have been made completely without Ryan factored in and still have stood on its own, where Ryan’s story necessarily cannot stand without the other half and spends way too much time trying. Their story is ultimately the more interesting one here and this is not aided by the way the story has to follow them doing much more interesting things like they’re the main focus without Ryan present while Ryan more or less spends the whole thing clinically unable to stay put and thus needing constant rescue, often by various secondary characters.
If a complaint had to be lodged at the writing, it’s that the villains are not a realistic threat as presented. Or rather the soldiers are a threat as far as forces go, introducing themselves by straight-up throwing a spear into Ryan’s back as a "hello," which he only survives because the book is in his backpack and blocks it by merit of being indestructible, but when you look at the folks in the throne room, two of them are outright cartoons, one is an eccentric schemer, another is an all-but-silent spider-themed lady assassin, one is pure eye candy, and then you have the adult in the room. The adult in the room is a general, not the warlord. The warlord is the eccentric. This makes them plenty appropriate for the intended child audience, which I would put in the 8-12 demographic, because they’re certainly not very threatening overall, but causes most adult critics some tonal whiplash that didn’t pan out well for the movie. If you look at it from the perspective of a smart and ambitious eccentric surrounding himself with an entertaining inner circle and offloading the boring stuff to boring people, it makes sense, but it does confuse who the movie is for.
Otherwise, weird relationships aside, it’s not like anything doesn’t work here. The dialog isn’t awful on the whole and there are some really cute scenes between Ryan and Elysia that are just so genuine. Lord Komodo gets a couple absolute bangers where Macfadyen absolutely kills it with his delivery. The weakest lines tend to be when someone has to make confused noises to summon the Exposition Fairy or otherwise highlight that Ryan brings things their world has never seen. This unfortunately happens quite a bit and it almost never feels natural, but it’s more a peppering of throwaway lines than it is anything structural and most of it is concentrated on Ryan’s arrival to Tao, so while it’s obvious when it happens, it’s at least not pervasive.
I’ve seen some actual Taoists review this thing poorly during my research for this review, and to be brutally honest, I spent my whole life without realizing that this movie was basically "Basic Taoism for Kids," in that I didn’t really see any themes that came off as unexpected for a movie of the time. If anyone had been aware of the Taoist themes at the time, I think there would have been much more of a kerfluffle, but the "Manuscript of Tao" is apparently a real thing and while Wikipedia seems less than impressed, and I know literally nothing about Taoism myself, well, as a Christian household, I feel like we never would have seen the thing if there was any indication it was preachy about someone else’s religion. (I am not here to debate whether any Asian modes of thought are religion, philosophy, or "it’s complicated," in a Christian household, it’s "religion" regardless.) That said, I mean, what, people getting up in arms because it boils something down to something approachable? There was a whole thriving industry for that for Christianity at the time. Absolutely no end to actually halfway decent productions for all the kiddies to watch at home on VHS and I can’t be entirely sure there weren’t full series of at least some of them in some vain hope they might sneak their way onto the airwaves. I frankly don’t see the issue here; you know Christians would have drooled at the same opportunity and if Christian productions had a lick of subtlety, they might get it more often. If the intent here was to slap you in the face with the text like Christian productions did with the Bible, literally no one noticed in the media, and general audiences didn’t, either.
Score: 6/10. The main problem here isn’t that any one thing is bad so much as there feels like there should be more of certain things.
On the whole, nobody feels like they don’t have an appropriate casting here. The various characters in the normal world feel organic and natural and while it’s difficult to talk about casting in Tao because of the many rubber suits, the various human characters there also feel chosen well.
Spoilers ahead on several characters; click to skip: BOING!
Somehow Angus Macfadyen was the top billed on this thing, but then he was probably the only one anyone had heard of from his well-received role in Braveheart. As the eccentric Lord Komodo, reception was far more mixed. Not that he doesn’t chew the heck out of the scenery in the role, he is a voracious black hole from which no scenery can escape, but it almost feels like it might have been one you could have dropped Johnny Depp into at the time and no one would have blinked. I won’t say that Macfadyen doesn’t do a fantastic job; he does, and I think he makes the character imposing in a way Depp wouldn’t have been able to. Depp would have made a better cartoon, but Macfadyen makes for a much more believable warlord. For everything he’s expected to do with the character, he brings it in spades, bringing a performance that makes the character cunning; ambitious; unpredictable; and shockingly, terrifyingly human. Komodo himself is not quite so much an "immortal" sorceror as he owes his eternal youth to a finite resource, Zubrium, that he’s almost completely mined out, which just so happens to be the source of all life on the planet. He’s very much looking for an exit into a new world that he sees Ryan able to provide. Komodo is shown to be the philosophical sort, quoting various schools of thought in some of his lines, but lacking any ability to create, only destroy, so while the Manuscript of Tao is obviously a powerful artifact he feels he’s capable of learning from and using, there’s something fundamentally lacking about his understanding of the philosophy he’s surrounded with that means he probably can’t. It’s ultimately this that keeps him in Tao despite his tactical brilliance and learnedness. He is told, outright, at one point the key to his problem and fails to grasp it or utilize it, and it’s expressed as him having been told it before. You can parrot something your whole life long and never understand or internalize it. That’s exactly what Komodo does and what makes him so dangerous, because he only ever understands everything he knows as a weapon. A fork can be a weapon, but until you understand it as a tool to nourish yourself, you will always be starving. Komodo is a man who is ever starving, for whom there is never enough, and who can never know fulfillment, and he has grown desperate, which starts to show itself as his façade starts to crack as the movie wears on. The wisest thing the movie does with Komodo is reveal things about him little by little. It’s quick to establish and slow to embellish, taking time to feed a trickle of interest into his character to recontextualize and deepen him. There is no point where he’s not glaringly evil, but over the course of the movie you get to see the affection and trust he invests in portions of his inner circle, with an excellent scene between him and General Grillo where he asks for an honest opinion on his fashion sense and Grillo takes time to think and offer it. Komodo knows exactly who his yes-men are. Grillo is something different, someone Komodo genuinely values and trusts. Loyalty, to Komodo, is cheap. Grillo is intelligent, analytical, and at his core honorable, and you see him constantly straining under it. He has many of Komodo’s own attributes and Komodo sees that in him and while he might sling the idle threat on his life, he doesn’t actually mean much less follow through on it as he does with others. Komodo trusts him over anyone else to give him that honest answer and expects it from him. You get to see Komodo’s analytical skills even as it introduces more of his eccentricity and decadence. You get to see the specific ways he treats people who are different types of disposable; ones who have his fancy and others who don’t. You get to see someone cross the barrier from disposable to valuable. You get to watch him mourn someone he valued. It would have been easy to make him a Narcissist, but he’s not. It’s clear he has the capacity to care about others without making him any less of a toxic individual. He’s more or less a collection of the Seven Deadly Sins, but none of this is clinical. He’s just a bad person. In everything this movie has to say about physical and mental disabilities, its most telling choice is to make Komodo not a sociopath, not a Narcissist, not even indistinctly crazy, but a person in full control of all of his decisions who fully understands accountability and repercussions and chooses a hedonistic lifestyle and enjoys corrupting others into joining him in it. You see this again and again in how he bounces off of people, giving them youth potion not even because they might need it, but just to watch them drink it. Komodo can be read a couple ways: 1) he’s a native to Tao, or 2) he was at one point himself a "newcomer." Komodo seems familiar with what a "touchdown" is, which might only have been reasonable for him to have learned about if someone was within earshot of Ryan celebrating his leg being fixed and decided to take anything away from his football babble, which is, in a word, questionable, but not impossible. It’s clear someone told him that Ryan was into football, but given nobody has context for what "cool" means, Komodo would have, at best, been working with educated guessing on whatever he was able to cobble together from probably multiple sources if he wasn’t from Earth himself. So it’s kind of plausible either way. The only other thing that might speak either way is that Komodo by the end expresses feeling trapped in Tao, and has revealed earlier a desire to leave it, so he’s definitely aware that a "newcomer" comes from another world entirely. Whether you consider that second-hand knowledge or first-hand knowledge depends on whether you read this as him thinking Earth has more Zubrium or whether you read his destruction of Tao as someone banging against the prison bars hoping to eventually break them, because he sees Tao as Hell, as in, he’s been trapped there away from everything he’s ever cared about. It’s entirely possible that he was expecting a "newcomer" to show up all along and was just surprised by the timing, because it’s entirely clear he understood something had to give eventually. The thing that ultimately keeps him in Tao either way is his lack of comprehension of the lessons of Tao; his inability to complete his own personal journey.
Master Chung is interesting for one reason: there’s every indication he was, himself, a "newcomer" and revolutionized their world, perhaps having brought the Manuscript of Tao, only for it to somehow leave their world after, as people talk about its "return" to the world. Aside from raising Elysia and her now-deceased brother, and having trained the roos, he ushered in a golden age where the roos were venerated before Komodo broke the peace. Whatever is in that book, he certainly seems to have made good on something. The way Elysia talks about him just showing up and changing everything, and the way she segues into assuming Ryan was a great leader back home, implies basically everything it needs to: these are people who are very used to the idea of someone showing up out of literally nowhere and changing their world. People don’t come to Tao and set up shop as a cobbler to live out the rest of their days; they bring in something from the outside. The difference between Master Chung and everyone else is that he has very much completed his personal journey and has everything figured out. It’s shown he knows exactly what’s going on, but, as with the themes of the movie, he can’t simply tell people how to complete theirs. This leaves him in the unenviable position of someone who’s forced to remain a passive observer in the face of things he cannot change, only nudge by trying to give people the tools they need. Sometimes this works; sometimes it doesn’t. It’s clear from the opening monologue that there’s a sense of helplessness he feels because there’s only so much he can do and he is at the limit of his ability to affect change with the variables in play. He knows that the Warriors of Virtue are not ready, but while this is presented as a sense of physical training, it makes no sense for him to be saying that when they’ve already been fighting years of war. He understands they aren’t spiritually ready and the ways this is shown are far more subtle. Ultimately, Ryan adds a variable for him to work with, even if it’s not a messianic one like everyone else seems to treat it. Chung has more realistic expectations for what Ryan is and takes the time to nurture him.
Ryan feels like the exact sort of kid who every boy should be able to relate to in some way, wearing his insecurities dramatically as a physical disability and being smart, active when he’s finally allowed to be, and yet very much of the generation who’s had a lifetime of media heroes to look up to and is thrilled by the opportunity to see them in real life, even if he’s a little freaked out by them up close, much like most people would probably be a little freaked out if they were within arm’s reach of a real Ninja Turtle. If other online reviews are any indication, people are freaked out just by seeing these guys on screen, but Ryan is completely dwarfed by nearly everyone around him, and isn’t himself much taller than Mudlap, a little person who serves as a side character. The kid had to be under four-foot because he’s like two-plus feet shorter than nearly everyone around him, which is pretty pint-sized given he was 12 during filming, though given how kids grow, you can kind of see scenes that were probably shot more toward the end because he’s somewhat less tiny. Ryan is basically every kid who wasn’t a nerd at the time and it’s difficult to dislike him despite his flaws even AS a nerd because he’s basically been force-nerded his whole life, or at least for enough time to need self-help books, due to his unexplained leg issue. The thing is, he’s also flawed, and realistically so. His view of the world is very black-and-white, informed by the media of the era and his own inexperience. He often acts selfishly, because in some sense that’s natural. When it comes to his leg, things initially seem so simple to him, like his leg being fixed immediately solves all his problems only for him to realize he has new ones, and even midway through the movie, you can see how important it is to him. How afraid he is of losing it. You see a hint of opportunism off the bat where, rather than admitting right away that he lost the Manuscript of Tao, he leverages it to see the Warriors of Virtue, only admitting he doesn’t have it afterward when pressed. You start to see him get quickly homesick and how that starts to lead to desperation that clouds his judgment. He very much would like to have it all: to be home, have a working leg, be able to do everything, to put his intelligence and talents to use for his own benefit. You begin to see how some of this could spoil into something darker. How, given the opportunity to maybe abandon things in Tao, or to quickly wrap things up so he can be done with it, he might be tempted to do so. Of course, that’s not what happens, but it’s not until he understands some of his own baser traits that he really can begin to move past them and let his better traits shine through. This doesn’t mean his growth happens all at once, but like Komodo, he does start learning things and slinging them around before he starts internalizing them, because he’s unable to see his own flaws right away.
In terms of the characters who are of the rubber suit variety, the one most worth talking about is Yun, the leader of the five roos, but before we get to that, we need to address the elephant in the room and that’s how difficult it is to cast for both stunts and rubber suit work. A look at the suited cast shows that these folks are not specifically stuntmen or martial artists; there’s a mix of folk from various backgrounds in horror and Hensen productions wearing heavy rubber or outright animatronic suits. If there’s one who’s important to talk about it’s Doug Jones, otherwise known as Abe Sapien, Abe Sapien (Romance Edition), and The Pale Man, as the Black-coded Yee. There wasn’t a large pool of people who could have done the work at the time, or at least not outside of Japan and tokusatsu, and there were already 3 countries and multiple languages to coordinate across. Just to explain this, but it takes a special sort of person to perform in an animatronic head, and if Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles taught Hollywood anything, it was that getting any old stuntman into something like that leads to a far greater number of on-set panic attacks than expected. Read some interviews on that; those poor souls were tearing the heads off mid-take and not having a fun time. I’m not saying there might not have been a Black person who could, just that they did at least manage to get one of the best people in the industry who can. The important thing to consider is that, on paper, exactly none of these performers was fully qualified for these roles because those qualifications effectively did not exist. There was no market for someone who could do stunts and kung fu with a probably 30-pound hydraulic tail strapped to their back under a control apparatus for an animatronic mask covering most of the face who were used to performing in effectively an isolation chamber. These folks more or less started with "can you perform in an isolation chamber" and "do you have any skills at all in something we can work with to train you on the rest." By the end of it, these 5 suit actors were the only people in the world with their expertise or close to it, because having checked IMDb for any overlap at all between this and the Turtles, there is zero, zilch, none, because all of those folks were so traumatized by the experience they probably never did it again. Jones, in contrast, has made a career of it. You really do have to understand where your "square 1" is with this sort of thing.
Back to Yun, you really need to pick apart disparate bits of info to understand the timing of things, because it’s not revealed to you all at once and might require a couple viewings to piece together, so I’ll field it for you here. I’m going to put this in spoiler text, but click here to skip: BOING!
SPOILER: Yun is said to have lost his will to fight and in many ways this seems like an issue that’s been ongoing for a while, but really hasn’t when you look at a few things. There’s a bit of a red herring in that the shrine to the roos is an overgrown ruin, but you’re given some explanatory info in that their reverement happened before the current war broke out, and it’s clear they’re not "revered" anymore; people are not shy about being critical of them. How long ago? Nobody says. They’re all believably in their late 30s to mid-40s in general appearance or else look like hell from the stresses of years of war, but it’s also entirely possible that they have an extended lifespan. This is supported by Yun referencing when he and General Grillo were kids, because we know Grillo has been taking the youth potion and his apparent age is higher than Yun’s. (There’s also evidence in the sequel, but we are NOT talking about that here.) Nobody says how old Master Chung was when he showed up; he could have been Ryan’s age for all we know and this war could have been going for 80 years given the bad guys all have eternal youth. What you do have to know is that Elysia talks about her brother having been recently killed and indicating they were twins, or at least very close in age. How old she is gets complicated because the actress was 22 during filming, but they seem to portray her as a teenager, so, I dunno, 18? Old enough for her brother to have been a young soldier. The big reveal of course comes in the end when she connects the two pieces that she gives earlier: Yun killed someone and her brother was recently killed, but, bam, the person Yun killed was her brother, which by extension means that his problems are recent. She doesn’t deny that her brother was an enemy combatant, but she doesn’t actually confirm it, either. There’s a slight amount of wiggle room that it was friendly fire or that he may have been an innocent bystander, but then Elysia doesn’t treat it that way, at least not by the time of the reveal. Whether it’s because she’s so hopped up on Zubrium by that point, which is heavily implied to be addictive (giving a whole new meaning to "high on life"), and which she’s been guzzling large bottles of where others are shown to only sip from small vials, is up for debate, but she very clearly sees Yun as her enemy. This gets incredibly problematic because it raises questions. She and her brother were raised by Master Chung after being orphaned as infants, and it’s explained she’s fallen in with Komodo as a direct result of the loss, but it doesn’t explain if or how her brother had done so or why Master Chung either doesn’t know or hasn’t seen fit to put a little more into keeping tabs on her, all things considered. By all indications, she’s living a double life and nobody notices her extended absences? Especially with her lofty position as, more or less, a princess? But while she’s very clearly been damaged by this, Yun has been damaged by it in a completely different way. He accidentally killed someone he knew intimately, watched grow up, and, while it’s clear his relationship with Elysia is not familial, in the sense that his relationship with Master Chung and anyone in his orbit is one of servitude, most certainly had warm feelings towards. He is dealing with the guilt of recently having killed someone he probably never expected to be facing as an enemy, and now has to contend with both the betrayal and the fact that he has the blood of someone important to him on his hands, or someone that he not only failed to protect, but is directly responsible for the death of, by his own hand. This is the type of "died in my arms" moment that would break a man, and that’s before you get to the reveal that taking a life directly damages you as well. When he left to go live in the wilderness, he left his sword behind wrapped and hidden under a bed. In the climax of the movie, he takes it up with a "why not?" As in, he fully understands he’s already killed someone and sees no reason not to do it again. He’s already damaged goods. He’s at a point of accepting his damage, understanding it’s something he can never take back, and though it’s treated like a heroic moment, you have to realize that this is in fact a moment where he throws away his morals and becomes willing to accept the burden of more damage. Admittedly for what he considers the greater good, but this is one of the many complexities the movie offers, and it unfortunately becomes immediately thematically relevant why doing so would be an incredibly bad idea, with him unfortunately not getting the memo before he tries and apparently pays for it. You can see that there’s more to the team not being ready than just him, but of anyone, he’s probably the least ready, at one point begging for answers that he cannot simply get, at another jumping on answers fed to him by Ryan that, while useful in the long run, were really not the best informed. He is broken in a way that will take years to fix. Years he doesn’t have to work with in the current environment and years that nobody else can afford, and the pressure on him to just magically be okay is not helping any of the stress fractures he’s experiencing as he tries to meet the expectations placed on him before he has proper time to heal. He really is a deconstruction of someone who doesn’t have enough left of himself to give and is expected to keep giving it to the end of his own destruction.
The other roos have less to talk about, given none of them really show much personal growth. Yee is easily the most interesting of them, and in some ways more interesting than Yun, having been so distraught over the suffering he saw across the course of the war that he lost the ability to speak as a somatoform disorder. He now communicates in a form of sign language that makes use of his jangling bangles to generate sounds as part of it. He ultimately gets closest with Ryan, given Ryan makes the effort to reach out to him. He also ends up being the unfortunate sacrificial lamb when someone needs to temporarily lose a dozen IQ points for plot convenience and Ryan isn’t on screen, because as I said, sometimes people just get ram-rodded into moving things forward and sometimes that’s a scene issue, but the choice to throw the burden his way seems to hinge itself on him being mute and therefore impenetrable to the audience and therefore harder to blame if he’s cute while he does it and, like, I’m not saying it’s right, just that that was the state of culture at the time. He was what passed for a Big Scary Black Man™ with a non-verbal mental illness and some severe trauma-induced behaviors, which meant there was a need to temper his threatening sudden reactions and inability to speak for himself to the audience because the two options were Teddy Bear and Terminator, so there are just times he turns into a big, overgrown puppy because they don’t expect you can stay mad at him. Yes, that is incredibly racist while it’s at it thanks for asking! Though to be entirely fair, on some level they would have needed to do it regardless of how he was racially coded and Jones managed to play a trauma-informed character with almost uncomfortable accuracy. When we look at how Master Chung says the heroes aren’t ready, we really need to examine Yee as someone who flinches into a defensive position when so much as the comparatively tiny Ryan makes sudden motions in his direction, who is the only one to break down into sobs when the chips are down, and who vocalizes primarily in falsetto-range whines. Something happened to him, or a lot of things, probably over time, and it’s caused him more problems than his inability to speak. He has some emotional stunting/regression in play here, too, and out of any of them, he’s the only one you can’t really look at the actions of and turn your head and squint and see how his virtue might be in play. Like, righteousness isn’t exactly easy to express without being able to talk, but he doesn’t show particularly good decision-making skills, either, in reference to him seeing each choice as right or wrong with no in between. Or rather, this MAY be the case, but we see how it leads him to make poor decisions based on morality rather than the available information. That’s a bit ignoble to be a virtuous trait and that kind of morality is a problem in its own right because the world is not black and white; that’s Ryan’s whole journey of self-discovery. This all more or less coalesces into someone who has more than a disability to deal with; this is someone who may never actually emotionally recover from whatever was done to him. Look, I’m not going to claim anything from the ’90s or 2000s ("The ’90s (Cont’d)") has aged well culturally; it almost invariably hasn’t specifically due to the casual ableism of the time, which this movie makes a point of flying in the face of to the best of its ability. I’m sure that in 2050, our current media will be considered just as problematic, particularly because we still haven’t solved the "you must be this non-threatening to not have a number sign in your character’s name" problem for Black actors. Progress is never "done." Yee being Black-coded is at most a tertiary aspect of his character, because the roos are variously coded white or Asian aside from him and that in its own right was part of the diversity expressed in the movie, which was already in the upper end of the typical range of the time, but it is an aspect of his character. They worked around it in conjunction with his disability or else there wouldn’t have been reason to do it at all, since he’d have been able to speak for himself to the audience. Introducing behaviors that speak toward some form of long-term physical abuse without acknowledging it and hanging a question mark on his mental age decidedly did not age well for a character who, on his surface, is only stated to have one issue, and the likelihood it was done to make him less threatening is something that I will love to say has aged poorly at whatever point we stop doing that. At the same time, outside of the context of his appearance, showing any of it at all was something movies of the time simply did not do, and something movies still don’t do. The fact a character like Yee exists at all is exceptional, much less as one of the heroes. The fact he could be anyone’s favorite (my brother adored him and he wasn’t alone) says ultimately what they did with him worked in the culture of the time. If I didn’t point out his darker coloration and wider nose compared to everyone else, you probably wouldn’t think anything about it; you might not have even noticed. Or rather, you might not have thought you noticed, but this might recontextualize what you’d otherwise have picked up on. If I didn’t point out the way he flinches into defensive positions any time Ryan, a tiny, tiny human in comparison, makes any sudden movements in his direction is a physical trauma response, it might otherwise make him seem unpredictable and dangerous. Understanding everything about the character in the context of both the production and the story that’s never told unveils additional layers of complexity that I think are worth talking about. Is it unfortunate that they coded him Black? Yes and no. In the context of a stoic combatant, no, he’s an absolute badass; I’ll take ten. In the context of everything else, yes, that’s a terrible thing to do. But that doesn’t make him any less interesting when his coloration is removed from consideration.
Score: 8/10. However you receive Macfadyen’s turn as Lord Komodo, it’s hard to argue with what’s there for the heroes. In a kinder universe where more of the screen time was devoted to fleshing more of them out, I think that it could have done a lot to expand of their various deep psychologies, because there is absolutely some deep psychology going on here. If anything I said makes it sound like any of this doesn’t work, that’s my limitation as a writer; not the script.
Story average: 7/10. I feel like this needs to be clarified; the story is Good. It had the potential to be Great, but I feel it’s held back by certain decisions.
So that all was the setup; how did it pan out?
Being brutally honest, the fight sequences are utterly wasted on this production, given the way the visuals are butchered and the editing tries to force them into being comedic. If they had a proper frame rate and were relieved of their cartoon sound effects, they’d be fit for a much more serious production, though at the same time, those changes would make this a much more serious production. This was FILMED as a more serious production. This is very much a "square peg, round hole" situation where the movie was shot as one thing and then tried to be forced to be something else, like a reversal of how people have taken innocent Disney coloring books and turned them into gory horror art. Not that there’s gore here, or really any blood apart from the very ending where people get a couple bloody noses and cracked lips, but this was shot as a serious wire-fu movie first and made into a goofy comedy all the way at step 10. I feel like everyone trusted the audience right up until post, or at the very least it trusted the audience at the beginning and then suffered a death of 1,000 cuts as various people got their grubby mitts on it, because it’s clear this was filmed as what could have been one of the most beautiful movies of its kind. The fights as choreographed are good when they could have been adequate. Maybe not to the level of greatness enjoyed by media aimed at adults, because they knew it would never fly for their audience, but not because they didn’t know how. I would have been happy with them as they are as something that’s been diluted just a bit to pass the ratings board the same way I can be happy with 90% juice as long as it uses strong enough juices to not taste like 50% water. That’s kind of what we have here; the fights are basically just what could have passed before a PG-13 rating and then they got gutted like a fish by everything you could possibly do to ruin them short of editing pillows over the weapons. The choreography does everything right it possibly can and it’s just a shame that it wasn’t allowed to come through unhindered.
Otherwise, everyone brings an excellent game, especially when it comes to coordinating the facial expressions of the roos, who are half acting, half puppetry.
I said it before and I’ll say it again, but Macfadyen took a character who would have been easy to write off as a cartoon and added a terrifying amount of nuance. Likewise, the suited performers brought more than could be expected to their characters. Given they were asked to do everything for an expertise that simply didn’t exist, being halfway competent was more than you could ask for, but they took it all the way to impressive. Suit actors even in tokusatsu haven’t generally been expected to pull weight in an emotional scene until recent years and even then they don’t contribute any part of their face to it. These folks were doing stunts, suit acting, face acting, interacting with pyrotechnics and other practical effects, coordinating with puppeteers, and fighting in specific real styles, all an average of 60% without prior training. They had absolutely no right to pull it off like it was nothing.
Mario Yedidia shows an authenticity here that I don’t think gets appreciated nearly enough. This is a kid who can pull both jubilantly rattling off football jargon and ugly crying when it feels like all hope is lost and the chemistry between him and Marley Shelton as Elysia makes the scenes between them some of the best of the movie, turning things that would be plain awkward between anyone else into something genuine and adorkable. Yedidia also ends up taking some small part in the fights less as a combatant and more as someone who has to dodge around stuff, but the tolerances on those things are completely believable and it’s not something every 12-year-old can pull off. He may not ever throw a punch, but he nails it. It’s a shame that he never did anything after this, because it looks like it ended the career of a promising young actor.
Score: 9/10. I think it’s easy to overlook just how much talent went into this thing because people tend to focus on the more obvious eccentricities of Lord Komodo and not the deeper nuances of the character or any of the others. This is a well-acted, well-choreographed movie that as performed accomplishes everything it set out to do. I won’t say it would necessarily ruin you to anything else, but if appreciated for everything that went into it, beyond the gossamer veil of the obvious, there’s a lot to love here.
This is where it really suffers, because contemporary movie-making tended to favor a HUGE lead-in of establishing BS before the action got going and having clocked the first line over black to the point where the white-out takes Ryan to Tao, it’s at, wait for it…
The fade to black happens at 01:37:24. Yes, nearly a quarter (or at least 20% and change if you want to split hairs on the prologue) of the movie’s run takes place in the boring real world spending time on stuff that doesn’t matter, and which could have cut down a lot of establishing shots, filler, and just scenes not relevant to the plot that take far too long and focus on characters who are barely in the movie. Having watched this movie plenty, and with a critical eye when I was older, the beginning could have easily been sliced in half to put the appropriate focus on the characters who deserved it and taken the runtime down to a solid 90 minutes instead of the ~100 it ended up with including credits. Or rather it could have given another 10 minutes to let certain other things breathe. Look, with the movie having been cut down from half again as much material as previously mentioned (please someone correct me if I’m wrong, seriously), and the interviewee having said she and her cohort were left to decide what belongs in a movie, with neither of them being "precious" (seriously, she used the word "precious;" if anyone can shoot me a link, I will include it with credit), it’s hard to believe that the best movie they could have made actually deserved that much of its run time dedicated to the parts that were the least relevant or marketable.
Again, long establishing intros were just a hallmark of the era. It’s true. But it ultimately introduces problems here because so much of what it’s dedicated to is chaff and Ryan being told, outright, the solution he ultimately finds for himself in the end. And on one hand, that’s sort of the theme is that you can’t just tell someone the solution, but when the solution is "teamwork," I mean, just, UGH! This is the thing that I was talking about where I didn’t see this as having any particular obvious philosophical meaning that literally everything else at the time wasn’t saying. The solution is literally teamwork. Or at least "combining your virtues." But that doesn’t happen here in just Ryan himself, everyone around him represents exactly one of those, so yes, it’s teamwork. And maybe a dash of "you can make a difference," "be the best you can be," and "be true to yourself." If they wanted to say that in particular so badly, they could have dumped the Chinese aesthetic and done yet another sportsball movie like everyone else like it seems they’re leaning towards in the first quarter of the movie. In this case it dilutes what makes the movie interesting. It’s like it just can’t help itself from shoving the moral in your face like someone so excited for the punchline of a joke they tell it before the setup.
The biggest problem is that the ending manages to be paced perfectly, so it’s not like they didn’t know how to do it. There are just, like, so many scenes where it doesn’t feel like Ryan is the main character, and that any of them are in the intro with characters we won’t be seeing for the next hour until the very end means someone fundamentally biffed. It’s different when it’s Yun as the leader of the Warriors of Virtue because that’s who’s going to be in the toy aisle. You’re not going to see Ryan Jeffers with Removable Leg Brace and Limping Action; you’re going to see Yun with Kung Fu Grip and Light Up Sword. His team’s name is on the box. The football team’s name isn’t. We shouldn’t be wasting time with them much less trying to make the audience forget who the protagonist is. Maybe that’s to highlight that he doesn’t feel he is one, but you can do that without dragging it out quite as long showing a play cross half the gridiron in slow-mo.
Once the REAL story gets going, it’s pretty darn good, but there are points when it suffers for time that could have been taken out of that stuff. This isn’t a matter of "well then just add more of it back;" a movie is going to be 90 minutes. That’s essentially not negotiable. 90 minutes has been scientifically distilled by theaters as the bare minimum it takes an audience to feel like they’ve seen a movie, so a movie is going to be 90 minutes if you want a general release to keep an audience coming to the ticket booth and cycling out the exit as quickly as possible, hopefully supplementing their paper-thin profit margins with all the overpriced popcorn and soda they can stuff everyone with. You have to earn a pedigree that’s going to guarantee a full house if you want a longer runtime.
In terms of that story, it doesn’t feel like it’s actually missing anything; it just could have used time for what’s there to breathe a bit more so bits of it don’t feel so rushed. The climax happens as a deus ex machina that could have used some explanation or at least some setup, because everything in the movie is quite a bit more focused on telekinesis and impossible jumps than it is on elemental effects, and even when elemental effects exist, or might feasibly exist given how Yee’s ring moves, I dunno, a little colored glint here and there, maybe? I feel like that could have made the final solution feel less like it came out of nowhere. Not that I dislike how relatively grounded everything is; subtlety would have been key.
Score: 4-6/10. I want to rate this higher. I really do. I feel like if the beginning was slashed in half to give more time to the meat of the film, this would be an 8, or at least a 7, and it’s a struggle not to rate it as low as a solid 5, because you really do have two movies here and the good one does everything right in what time it’s allotted, but the lackluster one greatly overstays its welcome. I really can’t decide on this, and I usually don’t like a wider range like this, but, like, if you watch the intro and then just fast-forward through to 00:17:00 or thereabouts, that more or less gets you the important stuff and then you can get to the parts that actually matter. Once you do that, everything is passable.
I feel like having said above that a movie is going to be 90 minutes kind of is going to feel diluted by spreading it into here, but in terms of that, to avoid dinging it twice, I feel like focusing on the replay value is the best way to get the score in order. And as for replay value, it has it. I think that for what it is, the details you’ll notice on subsequent viewings, the way knowing the story recontextualizes what you learn, it’s worth watching multiple times. Even just watching it again for this review, I have to say putting things down critically has opened my eyes to several details, and I have been watching this movie at least once every few years my whole life since it came out. There’s a lot to appreciate here.
Score: 8/10. I feel like this is one that’s subtle in why it’s worth watching again. I wouldn’t say it has enough content to watch it over and over all at once, but it IS worth watching again periodically as you yourself grow as a person. Which is sort of a long-haul rewatchability.
Performance average: 7-8/10. Once the film gets going, you’re not going to regret watching it for what it is, but it just takes too long to get out of its own way and that keeps it from being a much better film.
How did it look? How did it sound? Could you build it IRL?
There’s just, like, so much of this movie that happens in beautiful, fully-realized forests, some fantastic water features, living spaces that are both ornate and believable, and then you have some fantastic costumes.
The thing that seems lost on people is "why kangaroos?" And I really have to ask, why NOT kangaroos? If you’re going to have the heroes flying through the air in leaps that would get a thumbs-up from Golden Age Superman before he could just plain fly, something known for jumping isn’t the worst to make them. I mean Tigers have a terrifying leap of 20 feet horizontally or 15 feet in the air, but people don’t know that. Plus tigers might be scary. Kangaroos have the benefit of already being bipedal unlike, say, bunnies, and are probably an easier sell than bunnies in the toy aisle. As far as kangaroos go, their designs are fine and their outfits incorporate various bits of armor that mostly makes them visually distinct in their element.
But, like, there’s just so much design here. People drink Zubrium out of no less than 3 visually distinct containers and the differences are meaningful. Lork Komodo has a hanging bed and female servants to rock him in it just because. These aren’t things that you probably write in a script, or if they are, it still takes someone else to realize them. Even Komodo’s "throne" is this ornate hanging basket thing. Most importantly, everything looks very much like you could build it because they pretty much did. This gives everything a greater grounding in "place" than might otherwise be expected. You may not see how it’s all connected, but it feels like it could be.
And I really have to focus on the living spaces, because there’s no one who doesn’t have it good here. Komodo’s palace is very obviously the villain’s lair, but it’s the sort of place with inlaid marble floors that offers a sense of permanency and luxury. This is the sort of place that absolutely has a massive library somewhere. The bed is kept warm by gossamer veils and there are pillows for days. Conversely, the heroes reside in a large, multi-level town where there are basically no railings because who needs them when everyone can just jump from platform to platform? Everything is open in the front and the stairs are all toward the back. This is a place designed for people who get around fundamentally differently. Even if you are walking, there are bridges and then there are gondolas. Why wouldn’t you get around your leisurely town over a spring by water? Water has always been a primary mode of transportation. If you ever questioned that, look at where the oldest towns all are. So much thought has gone into this place and it feels like the only thing that might make it unpleasant to live there is that it gets cold enough to see your breath seemingly during the growing season and there’s zero insulation from that with everything open. Everyone seems to just wear layers, but still, I’d freeze.
Score: 10/10. If you can’t get past the kangaroos, that’s a "you" problem; the movie as designed is nothing short of superb.
This being the product of someone (finding who is proving difficult; I am not a film buff and Google ain’t what it used to be) who is known for their habit of using frame skipping in action scenes, there is FAR too much of it here, to the point it makes some people feel ill. Which is a grave disservice to the action, because they didn’t do it to speed it up, just to make it intentionally choppy or in the process of slowing it down, and it looks like garbage in some otherwise fantastic fight sequences. If A.I. could be used to get this back up to a solid 24FPS, that would probably be the first legitmately good use of it that anyone has thrown at a fictional piece of video that I know of.
The film as shot is gorgeous with some of the best fights you could hope for, far better than the slapstick-heavy ones in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movies where the suits were far more limiting by all indications, with a soul rooted far more in true Asian wire-fu than something more realistic like the tokusatsu or American productions of the time.
The whole thing may have been on a sound stage, but the environments of Tao are nothing short of gorgeous and the whole thing feels magical while also being grounded in reality. It’s an idyllic place, but it feels real.
The costumes were also superb and there was no shortage of detail in the heroes, though secondary characters got slightly less love. They work so well in part because they’re a combination of animatronics and prosthetics. Specifically, the titular heroes only have some rubber around the eyes and they used their own eyes with coppery contact lenses so they could actually emote through the suits, giving nuance to their performances that wouldn’t have been possible with animatronics alone. This means every scene with them included is a combination of traditional acting and radio control, the coordination of which is a testament to the timing of the actors and puppeteers, with the voice cast dubbing over that to produce the end result. And, like, there’s some real interesting stuff going on here, because for some scenes the set was refrigerated and you can see the breath coming out of the animatronic mouths.
Score: 0-9/10. In some kinder alternate universe, I would be able to rate this a 10 without caveats, but that universe would be one where considering frame skipping as a technique was punishable by being shot into the sun as a thought crime. There is no situation where skipping frames much less 8FPS has ever made anything better, whether it’s a martial arts movie or Tai Bo workout videos to hide the fact that the film was sped up, sorry, not sorry Billy Blank. 8FPS was a compromise for cartoons so we got them at all; it is not something any live action production should aspire to and it is not something one should have when the action is going at full speed. If you can’t get slow-mo any other way, then maybe it’s an acceptable sacrifice if you use it wisely. In this case, you may be unfortunate enough that it makes you violently ill and that’s easily worth a 0 given that you’ll be heaving your guts for roughly 60% of the runtime. If there’s some kind soul who could give this movie the "4K 60FPS" treatment and actually get a decent result out of it, this will be a 10 and I will never look back. As it stands, your mileage will very much vary, because even if you can look past the absolute garbage skipping frames makes fight scenes look and hold them in your mind to understand the beauty of the original film they were shot on like I can, you cannot ignore what ended up in the final product. Silly me whining about a 4-6 earlier and I have to contend with the fact there is effectively no way to rate this section other than saying it cannot possibly be perfect when it absolutely should have been.
To get this out of the way, the music in here is not what I’d call memorable. Even having watched this thing a couple times and skipped around it for reference and all that, the only thing I could really tell you is the winning football play sounds exactly like every "winning football play" theme ever and there are a couple vocal songs in the ending credits that are maybe a 5/10 at best. Oh, and Lai plays a wooden flute of some sort (of course not for real, and no, not with anything remotely correct for the fingerings, but then the music probably wasn’t written during filming and if we can’t hold Sir Patrick Stewart to it, it’s a bit of an ask here). That song is actually worth at least an 8 on its own, really, along with what it transitions into, and Lai plays it or something like it more than once throughout the film and it’s just nice, you know? And says something about him as a character that he uses music as an escape when it’s obvious he’s otherwise under so much stress. The tune itself still isn’t memorable, but it’s nice.
What I will say is that the music is dramatically appropriate. You won’t be humming any of it the next morning, but it does its job.
Score: 7/10. I feel like if they’d had at least one really good vocal theme that this could easily manage an 8, maybe even a 9, but none of the music really constitutes a "selling point" here and the vocal themes they do have in the credits are nothing special.
Voice and Other
Ironically, the face actors even for face characters got dubbed by voice actors and the voice cast is basically half from Beast Wars, so if you’re wondering why spider lady Barbarotious sounds suspiciously like spider lady Blackarachnia, there you go! And, uh, yes, for the record, this is probably just because Canadian voice work was cheaper at the time, but yes, Scott McNeil also pulled almost exactly his Silverbolt voice for Yun as well and they were actively or would very soon be using these voices for that project. This was probably not an accident. The only surprise is that McNeil didn’t just straight-up voice everyone as he’s wont to do. This is a guy who ends up with over a dozen names in the other column during the credit roll if you let him.
In other words, judging the movie by its voice cast is perfectly valid and they 100% deliver.
This isn’t as unusual as it sounds, because even on a sound stage, you’re not always going to get a 100% clean performance, audio data can just outright get lost, and in areas with a lot of noise, like certain environments on display here, you’re 100% going to have to have someone dub it regardless because no mic in the world is going to capture a conversation next to a waterfall or whathaveyou. Not everyone is always able to dub themselves because of scheduling and if it’s a bit part, literally anyone can do it. That’s before you get to the timeless Hollywood tradition of just dubbing someone for having the wrong voice. Welcome to every musical classic. All of them. Singing in the Rain was a movie ABOUT dubbing and it shamelessly dubbed the character who was supposed to be dubbing with the actress she was supposed to be dubbing FOR. Part of movie magic is that you’ll probably never notice when it happens because actors do it literally all the time, Foley artists handle realistic sound effects, and various professionals team up to mix everything together so you never know it wasn’t on the set mic.
The problem, as is often the case with this section, is that "other" includes sound effects, and here they’re a mixed bag, not because they’re terrible, but because of all the cases where competent sound effects completely obliterate the tone of some perfectly good wire-fu sequences by adding cartoon noises. We’re talking slide whistles, drum and cymbal hits, yeah, those cheesy American cartoon violence noises. Every. Last. One of them. It’s like they were contractually obligated to use every button on the sound board. On one hand, not turning these sequences into slapstick may have raised this to a PG-13 movie, but I guarantee China didn’t have them in their version of the release. I would very much rather have not had them. If there’s an edit of the movie without them, I’ll take ten.
Otherwise, the weapon sound effects are superb, with Yee’s ring especially being one of the coolest weapons on display here first and foremost just for being so unique and second of all because of the metallic hum it’s granted as it flies around in ways that juuuust stretch from the bounds of reality into magic. I won’t necessarily say it made Yee my top fave, but I will admit it breathed new life into my hula hoop.
If there is any criticism to be levied at the voice work, it’s that Lai has easily the worst voice of any of the cast with a gargling sort of tone that tries to be a baritone and doesn’t quite reach it and it sounds very much like a cartoon voice, while Chi isn’t radically far behind because of being given a breathy glottal bass that doesn’t particularly match his appearance and is unnecessary for his character. The latter isn’t terribly distracting, but the former is and wouldn’t be if the actor had just managed to get into a lower register. I wouldn’t call either a deal-breaker, but it does strain immersion a bit.
Score: 5-7*/10. I can’t really rate this lower than a 5 because the voice work is generally invisible as voice work should be and would rank a 7 on its own if I didn’t throw a star into the corner of an 8 for caveats, but the slapstick noises are just a steaming turd dropped on top of a perfectly iced cake here, right on the frosting roses, and I would rate the SFX very generously at a 4 if I had to average out the good stuff with the deal-breaker that is the bad stuff. So I’m throwing a star in the corner here. The slapstick sounds are a deal-breaker for me as a modern viewer trying to watch this as a wuxia flick, but I’ll admit they didn’t bother me as a kid, or perhaps the VHS version simply didn’t have them, or the Tubi version I’ve been re-watching is some misguided version where they were added, because I certainly didn’t remember them up until this point. If you consider it as a childrens’ action flick, maybe this isn’t as distracting, but the fight sequences are far better than they have any right to be as a childrens’ action flick and are absolutely high-caliber wuxia fights that any adult should be able to appreciate when you give them appropriate sound.
Aesthetics average: 6-8/10. Even if you can’t stomach the 8FPS BS, they did so much else right that it’s propped up this sub-score. The final score is not dependent on these averages, but it is encouraging.
Total Score: 7+6+8+9+[4..6]+8+10+[0..9]+7+[5..7] = [64..77]/100.
96-100: A must-have for any collection.
90-95: An experience to gain new fans for the genre.
80-89: A must-have for fans of the genre.
70-79: Worth buying to check out.
60-69: Rent before buying.
50-59: Worth a rent, but not buying.
40-49: May gain a cult following.
30-39: Likely skip this one.
0-29: Avoid at all costs.
Final word: I have to throw a caveat in here, really the first ever that I’ve ever had to for a 0, but if this movie starts make you feeling sick, stop, turn it off, and look at distant objects for a while. This movie unfortunately cannot be for you, no matter what else it has going for it. I also have to say there is one solid deal-breaker in here that, per my own rules that I guess you’d only really know if you read any previous reviews with one in them, by necessity knocks it down a rating. So this really goes from a recommendation of "Rent before buying" at best to "Worth a rent, but not buying" even if you manage to avoid a second deal-breaker or worse. On the plus side, Tubi has it for free. So, like, go nuts. That’s basically a rental right there. Not the same as OWNING it, but chances are your best shot at owning it isn’t going to be as good a quality anyway. Throw some ad views in their direction so they keep doing their thing. You might legitimately find an ad for something interesting. I certainly have. It’s not often that ads convert into purchases for me, but Tubi’s ads are the exception.
I should probably stop talking, but seriously, until there’s a DVD release of the widescreen film, Tubi is your best bet.