Heroes of the Golden Mask is the latest co-production between the USA and China, which attempts to merge the sensibilities of each and maximise appeal in the two biggest film markets on the planet.
This practice has produced some uneven results in recent times, but while Arcana Studios’ CGI animated fantasy is clearly trying to tick all the boxes for both hemispheres, writer/director Sean Patrick O’Reilly fills it with enough energy and artistry to keep it engaging and entertaining for younger audiences – as well as a few older ones as well.
Part of where the film suceeds is the presence of some big-name actors who are able to lend some gravitas to their respective characters. In particular, what initially seems like a silly, throwaway cameo here now has newfound poignancy; the film’s mafiosa character, Rizzo, marks the final screen performance of the late Christopher Plummer, more than two years after his death.
Also providing vocals for HOTGM is Ron Freaking Perlman, of course playing the villain, but his natural charisma and menace goes a long way. His character, Kunyi, is out to sieze control of the ancient Chinese kingdom Sanxingdui by way of stealing the powerful Jade Blade, which will make him invincible. Honour-bound to stop him are the eponymous heroes, who are each embued with a unique power given to them by the golden masks they wear.
Patton Oswalt voices one of the heroes, Aesop, who hails from Atlantis and who has the power of super strength. The others heroes are Zuma, a Mayan with control over flying orbs; Zu, who can shape shift into animals of the Chinese Zodiac; Li, whose mask gives her super archery powers; and Jiahao, their leader and Li’s father. When Jiahao dies in battle, Li sets out to find the next bearer of his mask, which takes her back in time to an unnamed city in modern-day America.
There the mask leads her to Charlie (Kiefer O’Reilly), a wise-cracking young squatter who lives off what he steals from others on the street. At this point the film starts resembling Kung Fu Panda, but without the panda: Li brings Charlie with her to Sanxingdui, where he shows no interest in being a hero and the others doubt his capacity to do so. He has to learn how to accept his destiny and believe that he is more than what he and everyone else sees him to be.
While Heroes of the Golden Masks doesn’t push any boundaries of animation or storytelling, it does each well enough to prop up its tried-and-tested plot of a reluctant anti-hero saving an earnest land in peril. The younger audiences it is broadly aimed at will surely find it an entertaining diversion, but will also be able to recognise there isn’t anything here that hasn’t been done before.
The animation is clean but uninspired, at best able to create some beautiful imagery and draw us in to the action. At a brisk eighty minutes, the film maintains an energetic pace with some exciting set pieces, including battles against mud monsters; a flight across a sea of clouds; and a big, sprawling battle sequence where the heroes fend off Kunyi’s army. That said the story does resolve itself a little too quickly (and seems to be trying to set up sequel possibilities).
It is HOTGM‘s more American elements that are the weakest: the film is about Charlie’s growth, but as a protagnoist Po the Panda he is not; he is somewhat bland and his snarky, sarcastic humour becomes tiresome early on. Similarly, Aesop has all the traits of your typical Patton Oswalt character, down to the fact he lives with his mother.
Elsewhere the Chinese aspects of HOTGM are given more care and attention and can be the more compelling. (Li, for instance, makes for a more interesting and better defined character than Charlie.) It will be intriguing, then, to see how those moments aimed at the west will play out with western viewers, given they feel the most stilted.