52-week film challenge 2023, week 10
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.