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The Legend of Hei (2019)

The Legend of Hei had humble beginnings. Conceived as a web series by Zhang Ping, known professionally as MTJJ, the series became so popular that it blossomed into a franchise. Since its release in 2011, the show has been adapted into a graphic novel, a mobile game, and, most recently, a feature film. A prequel to the original series, The Legend of Hei is an accessible introduction to MTJJ's world and a welcome watch for both new and established fans of the show.      

The film opens in a forest. MTJJ’s titular protagonist, Hei, is a cat spirit that shifts between the form of a human, a panther-like monster, and a small, black kitten. Hei is dreaming quietly when the sound of machines wakes him from his sleep. A logging crew is deforesting his home. Hei tries to fight his human attackers but is rendered unconscious when an excavator overpowers him. And so, less than three minutes into the film, Hei's home is taken from him, never to be seen again.

Hei wakes up to find himself in the human world. Hungry and alone, he spends the next several days battling to survive, relying on scavengry and theft to find food as he moves from one town to the next. Hei’s luck eventually runs out, however. On one particularly dark night, a gang of bat-wielding teenagers discovers him in a dumpster. For no apparent reason, the teens try to kill Hei, chasing him down alley after alley as the kitten desperately tries to evade their blows. Just when all seems lost, a powerful spirit named Stormend comes to Hei’s aid. Stormend fights off the attackers and takes Hei to his domain: a forest, much like Hei’s own, hidden from human eyes.

Stormend introduces Hei to his fellow spirits: Void, Bamboo, and Sky Tiger. United in their hatred of humans, the spirits welcome Hei and accept him as a friend. Hei finally feels that he has a home, but his newfound family is dissolved as quickly as it formed. The very next day, the group is attacked by Infinity, a human with psychokinetic powers similiar to their own. Infinity separates Hei from his friends and takes him hostage, explaining that his intent was to arrest the group and bring them to The Guild: a council that moderates the relationship between humans and spirits. Infinity holds Hei accountable for the group and explains that he must face justice, as well. The two thus begin the long trek to Guild headquarters, but what begins as a simple mission slowly transforms into a journey of spiritual awakening and self-discovery.   

Stormend, Infinity explains, wants to destroy humanity. While an embittered Hei at first supports this plan, his time with Infinity teaches him the evils of revenge. Hei will eventually befriend Infinity and train under him as an apprentice, honing his powers and learning the true meaning of morality. All the while, Stormend continues to hatch his maniacal plot. These plans eventually come to a head, resulting in an all-out war between Stormend's gang and the members of The Guild. Forced to choose sides, Hei must make the most difficult decision of his life: he can join forces with Stormend, losing his master, or stand by Infinity and lose his friend.

The line between Good and Evil is rarely well-defined, and MTJJ conveys that truth brilliantly. Unlike most villains, Stormend is a sympathetic character. We understand his anger and self-justified violence; some of us might even view him as a hero, even when his behavior spins madly out of control. This storytelling style, in many ways, feels vaguely akin to that of anime great Hayao Miyazaki. MTJJ's complex characters, lush backgrounds, and eco-spiritual themes are all recognized tropes in Ghibli lore, and their presence can be felt just as strongly in this film. Even small details, such as the translucent, kodama-like spirits in Stormend's forest, allude to the likes of Princess Mononoke (1997) and other celebrated titles.   

Despite this apparent imitation, MTJJ manages to carve out his own, distinct indentity as an artist. His charming, quirky brand of humour will entice viewers young and old, and his flat character design tethers the film to its flash animation roots. Pacing appears to be his greatest weakness. While MTJJ spends plenty of time developing the bond between Infinity and Hei, the young hero's relationship with Stormend is grossly undernourished. Hardly ten minutes pass before Hei is whisked away from his soon-to-be ex-friend, making it difficult for viewers to feel Hei's inner conflict when he must pick sides; as far as the audience concerned, Infinity is the obvious choice. This shortfall, coupled with MTJJ's ceaseless introduction of colourful but underexplained characters throughout the plot, confuses the film and reduces its dramatic effect. Even so, the strengths of this story outweigh its weaknesses. The narrative might falter at times, but its beautiful aesthetic, inventive world-building, and heartfelt message all ring true. As MTJJ continues to grow, it will be exciting to watch him improve as a feature-length director.

As Shout!Factory rolls out The Legend of Hei on BluRay and DVD, animation fans have a rare chance to add this film to their physical library. MTJJ is certainly a name to watch, and his latest work deserves the attention of any collector. Time will tell what adventures await Hei, but--if this film is any indication of the series' direction--the future looks bright for MTJJ and his beloved, feline hero.   

 



 FORMAT: MOVIE AVAILABLE ON: BLU-RAY, DVD, DIGITAL FROM: SHOUT! FACTORY RATING: N/R  RUNNING TIME: 1 HR 42 min

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IN A NUTSHELL:  A charming adventure film for both new and devoted MTJJ fans.





★★★☆☆