The Tiger’s Apprentice Review

The animated adaptation of Laurence Yep’s The Tiger’s Apprentice is a visual feast that gives the Chinese zodiac the superhero treatment.

Last Updated on March 5, 2024

Plot: After a tragic loss, Tom Lee, a Chinese-American teen, learns he’s part of an order of guardians tasked with protecting an ancient phoenix. Clueless about his heritage, avatars of the Chinese zodiac assemble to show him the ropes and join the fight against the villainous Loo.

Review: Fantasy fiction is a slippery slope. After the meteoric rise of characters like Lyra Belacqua, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson, the literary market became flooded with young heroes, each with a magical lineage to discover or a world-ending mystery to solve. It takes a lot to stand out among the crowd and leave your mark on young minds worldwide. Thankfully, The Tiger’s Apprentice taps into an extraordinary world shaped by timeless heritage and iconography, with the Chinese zodiac as its foundation.

Based on the fantasy novel series by Laurence Yep and produced by Paramount Animation, The Tiger’s Apprentice invites audiences into a beautifully animated adventure bursting with vibrant colors, powerful spellcraft, and animal guardians, each with supernatural gifts to help turn the tide of any battle. With an aesthetic reminiscent of Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the overall look of The Tiger’s Apprentice will dazzle young viewers with its fluid movement, expressive facial articulation, and detailed depiction of sorcery. If particle effects, plumes of colorful smoke and elaborate explosions often hypnotize you, The Tiger’s Apprentice is a visual spectacle on par with a Lunar New Year celebration.

Shy of an hour and twenty minutes, The Tiger’s Apprentice respects the viewer’s time with swift storytelling and a pace that other animated features could learn from. While I would have preferred the film stop and smell its roses now and again, it’s wise to cater to younger viewers and their fragile attention spans.

The Tiger's Apprentice review

While The Tiger’s Apprentice is often a visual feast, characters and story aspects sometimes feel underbaked. While the zodiac avatars and their human counterparts are fantastic additions to the cast, this chapter of The Tiger’s Apprentice hardly takes advantage of the vast lore created by its mythical source material. We only learn a little about the zodiac avatar cast beyond their function of protecting the guardian (Tom Lee) and the phoenix. While I can’t review a movie we didn’t see, I wanted more from the film’s metaphysical roots and potential to teach audiences about the cultural significance of the Chinese zodiac.

Adding to the film’s outstanding visuals is an all-star voice cast featuring some of Hollywood’s best and brightest. Brandon Soo Hoo (Ender’s GameTeen Titans: The Judas Contract) voices Tom Lee, a teenager struggling to make peace with his heritage caught in a fight for survival against dark and ancient forces. Hoo delivers an excellent blend of snark and sincerity as Tom adjusts to his new circumstances and fantastical lifestyle. 

Mr. Hu, played by Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians, The Gentlemen), assumes the role of Tom’s mentor and defender throughout most of the film. Persnickety and independent like a cat, Hu represents the Tiger of the Chinese Zodiac and the avatar tasked with bringing Tom up to speed about his role in protecting the phoenix. Golding’s performance shines brightly amidst the group of voice actors, creating a character that prowls between stubbornness and desperation to connect with someone other than his fellow zodiac warriors.

Kheng Hua Tan (Crazy Rich AsiansMarco Polo) is another standout as the voice of Mrs. Lee, Tom’s spirited grandmother. Though her time in the film is short, Mrs. Lee is one of the film’s best characters. Wise, playful, and knowledgeable about the Lee family’s rich mythical heritage, Tan perfectly plays Mrs. Lee with plenty of pith and vinegar to match her awesome supernatural powerset. Her exit from the story remains the film’s only earned emotional beat, partly due to Tan’s endearing performance.

Other voice actors given time to shine in the movie are Bowen Yang (Isn’t It RomanticThe Outs) and Sandra Oh (Killing EveGrey’s Anatomy) as Sidney the Rat and Mistral the Dragon, respectively. Sidney and Mistral offer the film’s best comedic elements, with both characters trying Hu’s every nerve with playfully antagonistic glee. Sadly, Lucy Liu’s (ChicagoCharlie’s Angels) part as the mother goddess Nü Kua feels too brief. She enters the movie as quickly as she exits, creating a missed opportunity for the project to feature an A-list actor cutting loose in the voice booth.

Next, the incomparable Michelle Yeoh delivers a stellar performance as the film’s wicked and witch-like villainess, Loo. Yeoh commits to the bit for The Tiger’s Apprentice, becoming the film’s most developed and well-directed character despite being able to offer zero insight into her motivation. Loo exudes malice, and you can feel it dripping from Yeoh’s lips as she chews the scenery. Learning why she’s so angry would have been cool, considering her role in the story. Did someone drop a house on her sister?

Finally, we have Leah Lewis as Räv, Tom’s rebellious schoolmate, and, for some reason, that continues to elude me, Loo’s adopted daughter. When we meet Räv, she’s a mysterious teen who shreds on her skateboard like she’s been training with Leticia Bufoni. She’s cool, anti-establishment, and hates bullies. What’s not to love? Also, why is she criminally underused in the film? After a strong introduction, Räv disappears for most of the movie before her relationship with Loo gets uncovered. It’s a shame that Lewis’s Räv doesn’t get more screen time, as she’s one of the film’s most pleasant and curious characters.

Oddly, there’s little to say about the film’s soundtrack. I recognize that I am not the target audience for this animation. However, I can’t help but shake my fist like Abraham Simpson yelling at clouds regarding the cringy needle drops throughout the adventure. Leave it to The Tiger’s Apprentice to help me feel 43 years’ worth of the sands of time collecting at the bottom of an hourglass. I hope the kids enjoy it and the adults join me in praying at the altar of Survivor for a worthy rendition of the band’s “Eye of the Tiger.”

I enjoyed the visual spectacle, brisk pace, and commanding voice performances by a stacked cast for The Tiger’s Apprentice. Still, the movie features too many characters that never go beyond the functionality of their mystical powers, leaving little room for emotional consequences or resonance. The Tiger’s Apprentice could have been an impactful journey about connecting with one’s heritage and exploring a world beyond our own limits. Instead, it’s a visually rich story with too many underdeveloped elements. Still, I would happily watch a sequel, as I think the characters have room to grow, and younger audiences could find themselves thrilled by the “superherofication” of the Chinese zodiac. I would not be surprised if parents find The Tiger’s Apprentice playing on a loop inside their home when the film comes to Paramount+ on February 2nd.

Source: JoBlo

About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.