As I was watching The Legend of Hei (on Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray release, coming this Tuesday) I kept thinking there was more to this story than was being presented in the film. The world of the film seemed much richer, the story much deeper than I was getting in this movie. I figured it must be based on a novel or some other source material that contained more of the story’s mythology. Once the movie was over, I looked into and I was correct, The Legend of Hei is the first full-length feature film adaptation of a series of animated web shorts created by a Chinese animator who calls himself MTJJ. It is popular enough in China to have been expanded into graphic novels and a game but is virtually unheard of in America (mostly because it has yet to be translated into English, something I hope will change with this release).
But the thing is, though I could tell that this world had been developed beyond what this particular story was telling, I didn’t ever feel lost in it. I didn’t necessarily understand all of the mythology, and there are times when characters just show up without much of an introduction, but the film’s handling of it allowed me to feel comfortable with it, and not at all lost. It helps that the film’s main character, Hei, is essentially new to this mythical world as well. Thus he acts as our avatar, learning about the mythology as we do as viewers.
Hei is a tree spirit who spends most of the film in the form of a small, super-cute kitten, but who can also transform into a much larger, much more terrifying cat creature, and into a human boy with cat ears and a tail. The film begins with his carefree existence in a forest being destroyed by humans cutting down the trees to create their city. He’s rescued by another spirit, Fengxi, and his band of friends. They retreat to an island where they feed Hei and tell him he can stay with them for as long as he likes.
Before he can settle in, Hei is kidnapped by a metal spirit, Infinity. Like Magneto of X-Men fame, Infinity controls any metal object. He keeps four small rectangles of metal with him which act as weapons, tools, and often keep Hei tied up. But before you can settle into Infinity being a bad guy and Fengxi being the hero, the story takes a number of turns giving us a nuanced look at these characters showing them to be much more complex than simply good or bad, hero and villain.
It is a hero’s journey for Hei as he learns that he has far more powers than he originally thought and the world he lives in is far more complex. Like Neo in The Matrix or Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, Hei comes to learn he is a more important part of a story he didn’t even realize was taking place The film doesn’t dive into the mythology too deeply but there is a war going on between humans and spirits. For centuries the two have lived in a fragile harmony but as humans increasingly destroy the natural world, some spirits are ready for a fight.
The film moves seamlessly between character development and fast-paced action sequences. It isn’t afraid to slow things way down to allow a character to reflect and us to bask in the beautiful animation. It is also very funny. There are some terrific visual gags. The action is ambitiously drawn, though its focus on speeds sometimes causes spatial confusion where I wasn’t sure who was doing what to whom.
The animation is quite beautiful. There’s clearly a lot of Studio Ghibli influence in its style, though the action sequences owe a debt to series like The Last Airbender and probably a dozen other anime I’ve never seen. The story is funny and exciting and the worldbuilding is rich and engrossing. Count me in as an American who truly hopes the web series get an English language release.
Unfortunately, that’s not something available on this Shout! Factory release. In fact, if you are looking for any extra to give you more background information on this film, or anything at all your out of luck. All you get is the film. It is a good enough movie to make that worth the purchase, but it seems like a real missed opportunity not to have included the short films in this package.