This 1941 B&W fully-animated movie is considered the first Asian full-length animated film, and is certainly the first full-length Chinese animated film. While some western influence (particularly the early Looney Tunes of the 1930s and the early Disney movies like Snow White) can be seen, it is drawn from folk fables themselves inspired by a portion of a novel called Journey to the West, published in 1592.
The folk tales based on the book, we are told at the beginning of the movie, often focus on the supernatural creatures rather than the travelers and the moral of their journey — which is that life is full of trials and suffering. The filmmakers, however, wanted to emphasise the lesson of the story: that working together as a community, faith, and using everyone’s talents in harmony can overcome great obstacles, and make life better for all.
The tale is a fairly simple one: a monk trying to get to “the west” (meaning Central Asia and India) to obtain some Buddhist sacred texts (sutras), but is stopped by a mountain range full of fire. His three servants — a monkey prince, a pig-faced monk, and a stuttering but strong worker — each try to use their various magic powers to solve the problem. Specifically, they need to get a magic palm-leaf fan from an unhelpful princess in order to put out the fires, but their individual ruses and even brute force all fail.
The servants all regroup back at the town where the monk helps them brainstorm, suggesting that the three pool their abilities with the assistance of the townspeople to overcome the trickery of the princess and her husband. This they finally do, ultimately winning the day and clearly the mountains of the fire demon that tortures them, so that they and the monk can proceed on their journey of enlightenment.
Despite the handicap of no really good print of the film being available (it is desperately in need of a major restoration), the quality of the B&W animation shines through, with many impressive moments including extensive use of rotoscoping to make some scenes much more realistic, along with smoke effects and excellent character design. The various shape-shifting and disguising powers of the three servants are well done, and the quality of the existing film print picks up a bit in the last third.
This is primarily a film that would now mainly appeal to fans of early animation, film historians, and students of Chinese history, but it is a very impressive feat of filmmaking that is only marred by the lack of a pristine print. A special mention should go to the musical score, which starts off a bit overwrought in my opinion but soon settles down when needed to accompany the story. I enjoyed it enough that I would certainly revisit it if it were ever restored.
This short film (34m) won the BAFTA for Best British Short Animation, and since I have a fondness for short films (I reviewed dozens of them for Film Threat back in the day), I thought I’d have a look. The bottom line on this is that as a short film, it is deeply flawed in the story and dialogue department, but does indeed feature some lovely animation and music, along with considerable vocal talent.
Other reviews of the film — which follows the original book by Charlie Mackesey in both prose and illustration style — have been similarly mixed. The majority seem to side with me, in that a worthy project has been let down by a lack of story logic and an over-abundance of stilted aphorisms rather than dialogue.
On the other hand, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention those who liked it better than I did, because for them the film succeeded in touching them emotionally; perhaps in reflecting their feelings of having no proper place in the world, of a general sense of inadequacy or “imposter syndrome,” of longing for the emotional support in their lives that these four characters who have been brought together try to give each other on their journey.
Reading reviews like that gave me some further insight into what I think was the motivation of the filmmakers, and importantly the symbolic role each of the four characters play. The boy is the representative of those who feel lost; the mole speaks for those who are disabled in some way, or are otherwise naturally vulnerable; the fox is an anxious introvert who says little but keeps his thoughts and emotions under wraps; and the horse hides both himself and his true talents due to loneliness and depression.
Its core audience, then, picks one of these characters to identify with, and hopes — like each member of the foursome — to gain something hopeful from the journey. However, if you don’t see yourself too strongly in any of these characters, they fall flat and don’t say much that speaks to you. That’s what happened to me.
So what I’m saying here is that I (now) “get it” a little better, and understand how some people could have such a different reaction and identification with the characters, to the point of overlooking the film’s flaws because of the power of representation. That said, in my view the filmmakers were too keen on getting these stereotypes together and badly dropped the ball on a) telling a coherent story and b) fleshing out the characters instead of turning them into walking self-help motto machines.
Since the animation, character design, camera & scenic work as well as the soundtrack are all perfectly fine, I have to focus on the near-total lack of story coherence. As the film opens, we see a boy (inadequately dressed for such weather) wandering across a lovely snowy landscape. As with any winter wonderland, the world looks new and clean and fresh. After a bit of lingering on the beauty of it all, the wandering Boy happens across a mole, who quickly befriends him with his cheerful attitude.
As they learn a bit about each other, the boy discloses that he is lost. Right at this moment, the film goes badly wrong when Mole does not simply suggest that the Boy just follow his own snow track back to wherever he came from. Further, the Boy suggests he is looking for “a” home, rather than “his” home, so right away we are as confused about where he came from as he apparently is.
Mole, who is good at burrowing but barely able to walk on the surface, first suggests climbing a nearby tree at the top of the hill they are on to get a wider view of the surroundings, and a few playful moments ensue with the Boy of course carrying Mole up with him. Before they can spot any sort of housing or town, they fall from the tree (miraculously without injury), but not before they spot a river. Mole suggests they follow the river starting tomorrow, as that invariably leads to somewhere, and the snow begins to fall again — so they retire for the night (to where?) to await the morning so as to begin their trek. There is no mention of shelter or food anywhere in the film, and no indication of how they would acquire either of those things (or survive the freezing temperatures at night), because why should this film even flirt with any degree of realism?
The next day, they get to the river and of course due to playful shenanigans, they fall in. Again, both Boy and Mole seem impervious to both the cold and being soaked, which really makes you (or at least me) wonder why this film is set in the winter at all, other than because snow is pretty. While helpless, a fox that has been following the pair since that first hill makes his play for capturing Mole, including rescuing him from the water with the aim of killing and eating him as you might expect from a fox. Indeed, Fox makes an explicit death threat to Mole once he is caught in a snare.
Mole makes the decision to chew through the snare, freeing the fox. Confused and frustrated, he runs off — but later begins not-so-secretly following the pair as they climb up another (bigger) hill to get the lay of the land. This time, at the top of the hill they spot a distant town with lights, and the trio begin their journey in earnest, with Fox still following at a discreet distance — as though he is attracted to their comraderie but doesn’t want to make it too apparent he wants to join them, although they have noticed him hanging back as it has become obvious.
To this point in the movie, the dialogue has been sparse but mostly story-driven, sprinkled with words of friendship. The dialogue aspect will soon bed almost exclusively replaced by declarations of feel-good quotables of the sort you’d hear from a self-help group leader.
Eventually Fox approaches, says he is sorry for his past actions, and is immediately trusted and accepted into the group. After an unknown further time (presumably including at least one further night, though again no mention of food or shelter), they are ambling through a forest when they come across a horse who is attempting to hide. A few nuggets of shared wisdom later, Horse joins the party and the film’s title is now complete.
Horse gives them rides, and some merriment is had as the group continues to bond. A notable scene occurs where Fox gets a character moment to explain why he doesn’t say much compared to the others, and from here on pretty much all we get going forward are round-robin soliliqies of of love, friendship, and support.
Some indeterminate time later (again, presumably nights and days in the cold have passed), the group finally seems tired and rests, whereupon Horse reveals a secret: he can fly. He has kept this talent hidden to avoid attention, for no discernible reason. In short order, the group flies the rest of the way to the entrance to the village/town, and a scene of goodbyes and further fonts of well-put wisdom are exchanged as the animals prepare to return to their previous lives.
As a reminder, this is apparently not the place the boy came from, and he doesn’t seem to know anyone there, but just assumes he will get a Home (hashtag entitled much?). It would be a more effective emotional scene if it wasn’t so littered with pull quotes from a 12-step program.
After saying goodbye to his friends, Boy begins to leave but quickly decides not to go, because he has twigged that home is where you are loved and “family” is who are enjoy being with, and so he doesn’t even give the town a chance. It would seem that the meaning of life is to love and be loved — which is a lovely idea — but the film ends there, blissfully free of any degree of realism.
The movie is rated 5+, which suggests it is aimed at kids — but even kids these days just aren’t this naive as to think that amassing a small group of diverse but supportive friends is the only thing you need in the world. Or perhaps I’m just a curmudgeonly old fusspot for wanting the film to have at least some tenuous connection to reality, the way the beloved films of my childhood — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the Wizard of Oz, Mary Poppins, the Muppet Movie, Toy Story, the Goonies, Charlotte’s Web, The Last Unicorn, The Princess Bride and so many others — did. Hell, the Roadrunner cartoons I adored as a boy were more anchored in the world I lived in than this.
I rate this movie — or at least its written in a new-age crystals store script — Bah Humbug, and no I won’t see the error of my ways later. A movie filled with amorphous affirmations where every character is wonderously wise and replete with the sort of positive pop pablum one expects to read in a Stuart Little daily calendar takes the children out of this children’s movie and reflects more accurately generations of bitter, broken grownups who long for a simple saying that will somehow hug away all of their adult life’s complications, regrets, bad luck, and bad choices.
While I appreciate the message of the importance of friendship and diversity, and again mention that many elements of this film — the animation, voice talent, and music specifically — raise it above average, it’s just overly simplistic even for a kid’s book and film. The Boy, the Mole, the Fox, and the Horse relies too heavily on superficial self-deluding sayings to rise above even a cursory set of critical thinking skills, which I happen to think most kids over the age of five have acquired in some measure.