After watching the trailer for the movie and looking at all the promotional material, I initially expected that Monster Run would be like a Chinese version of Ghostbusters or Men In Black. I was wrong, however, when the result was anything but that.
Instead, Monster Run ultimately feels closer in tone and structure to that of the young adult movie adaptations and movie franchises which were popular back in the 2000s/2010s, such as Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, and the like.
Monster Run follows Ji Mo (Jessie Li), a young woman who spent the past few years in a psychiatric hospital to treat her supposed paranoid personality disorder. She’s like the Haley Joel Osmont from The Sixth Sense, However, instead of ghosts or “dead people”, she can see fantasy creatures and monsters.
After finally getting discharged, her mother is nowhere to be found and she is then forced to eke out a living by working at a convenience store. Just when she’s trying to live a normal life, a monster hunter named Meng (Shawn Yue) barges into the store one night with his partner, Paper (a literal living piece of paper voiced by Qiao Shan), and hunts down a monster right in front of her.
From then on, Ji Mo’s life gets more intertwined with Meng’s, but it turns out that a mysterious lady named Lotus (Kara Hui); who is the antagonist of Monster Run, has nefarious plans for Ji Mo.
If that all sounds like the plot of a conventional young adult novel, then you’re correct. Monster Run is actually adapted from Monster (2009); a young adult novel from American author A. Lee Martinez. There is also another adaptation of one of his books (2016’s The Last Adventure of Constance Verity) currently in the works.
That also explains why the movie feels formulaic and follows typical young adult tropes, even when it’s a Chinese movie with a Chinese director and a fully-Chinese cast. Monster Run does feature one thing that feels like it could be an original element; the use of charms.
In the movie, the characters use charms (incantations and magic symbols written or painted on pieces of paper) to send the monsters back to their dimension or even bend the laws of time and space. When it’s the latter, the movie does feature some unique visuals, including one that takes place in a sort of time loop and another taking place in the aforementioned monster dimension.
The special effects and CGI in Monster Run are pretty decent. What’s a bit disappointing is that I had hoped to have seen more variety in monster designs. They seem a bit uninspired, perhaps due to the limitations of the source material.
For a movie that leans into fantasy elements (and a Chinese one at that), I expected more fantastical and unique monsters, not just a Yeti and some little lizard creatures.
Paper To The Rescue
The most redeeming and memorable highlight of Monster Run probably has to be the aforementioned literal living piece of paper simply named Paper, who acts as the cute and snarky companion of monster hunter Meng. He’s charmingly amusing and cracks jokes, but (thankfully) is not grating or annoying.
It’s fun to see the various shapes and forms Paper would assume throughout the movie. As a testament to how good Paper is, he’s also one of director Henri Wong’s favourite character in Monster Run. According to him, whatever shape that Paper takes was folded out of a real piece of paper based on the art of origami. Wong even invited an origami artist named Qin Kun to help with bringing Paper to life in the movie.
That’s certainly an amount of dedication that I think is definitely worth their time and resources, considering how Paper turned out to be the best thing about the movie. Just look at him.
If the director and studio knows what’s good, the little guy deserves a spinoff movie of his own in the future.
However, it doesn’t exactly bode well for the human characters in the movie when the highlight is a living piece of paper. The best performance has to be Shawn Yue’s monster hunter Meng, whose aspirations of trying to live up to his brother’s reputation gives the character more emotional depth. Unfortunately, Jessie Li’s Ji Mo is nothing more than a doe-eyed protagonist who keeps making googly eyes at Meng.
Meanwhile, Kara Hui hams it up as antagonist Lotus with a corny performance. There are several other monster hunters as well, but they’re most bland, and I don’t think they even had proper names. Oh, well, it’s all up to good old Paper to carry this entire movie on his sheet-thin body, I guess.
Monster Run is a decent Chinese fantasy film that follows the conventional tropes of Hollywood young adult fare like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson. That’s not a bad thing, but in the end, nothing much distinguishes this movie from those others, with the sole exception of Paper.
In the current movie climate, maybe Monster Run is a good enough movie to bring the family and kids around for a watch. However, fantasy and sci-fi enthusiasts should tone their expectations down. Ghostbusters or Men In Black, this is not. If only Paper alone is enough for me to recommend this movie.
Final Score: 60/100
Monster Run is slated to premiere in Malaysian cinemas on 17 September 2020.