It’s no exaggeration that I’ve eagerly waited for the release of The Tiger’s Apprentice. It finally releases on Paramount+ this Friday after being announced for theaters back in 2020. Based on the young adult fantasy novel from author Laurence Yep, it tells the story of a young man taking on a grand responsibility. The faithfulness of this adaptation is up for debate, but the intentions of the film are admirable, and this could be a fun family movie night pick.
Stacked with an incredible Asian voice cast, The Tiger’s Apprentice has lots of heart, but the liberties taken with changes kept me a bit less interested. The shift from the early 2000s, and the main motivations of some characters, took away the emotional engagement that kept the novel in my mind for two decades. But if you do enjoy Chinese mythology packed with plenty of action, The Tiger’s Apprentice might be worth the hour plus adventure.
Michelle Yeoh and the voice cast of The Tiger’s Apprentice
Having to represent the twelve Zodiac animals is a feat, as it’s quite the balance for the variety in personalities and powers, but a couple of voices stand out for their distinctiveness. Bowen Yang as the Rat is impossible to miss. Patrick Gallagher contributes his talent as Dog and Henry Golding leads as Mr. Hu who is the human representation of the Tiger (the one with the apprentice). Brandon Soo Hoo takes over as the lead Tom, who endures the trials of the story.
Coming off the successes of Everything Everywhere All at Once, Michelle Yeoh is Loo who’s pivoted as the villain and is vastly different from the description in the book. A lot of the scarier elements have been diminished or simplified for the target audience. Loo goes from a frightening creature to a conniving shape-shifter, which works for the story and modernizes it to keep it from being horrifying to viewers.
The change for Loo was one of my first reservations, as Loo only serves an even bigger villain, but I have a weird feeling they may have held that villain back for sequels if there are any. Leah Lewis as Räv was a great selection, but again, it’s the changes of her character that left me disappointed. Rather than being in on the plan and tricking Tom, Rav is just as clueless about who and what Loo really is.
Sharp ears will catch a Star Wars newcomer, Diana Lee Inosanto (Morgan Elsbeth in Ahsoka) as another one of the Zodiac Guardians. Other fantastic Asian-American actors such as Lucy Liu, Deborah S. Craig, Poppy Liu, Sherry Cola and Jo Koy help fill out the other Zodiacs and mythical Chinese Goddesses. For certain, there is no lack of talent in this feature.
Major changes to the story make it miss the mark a little
It’s been a long time since I’ve read the book, but a quick glance at summaries brought it back to my memory. After this recollection moment, there was a bit to unpack on the major changes introduced in The Tiger’s Apprentice. They keep the core idea of the story fully intact, which is a blessing because it opens up the opportunity to grow the world if they decide to return. The cut and dry of it is, Tom comes from a long line of Guardians who protect the Phoenix.
At the start of the story, it’s his grandmother, Mrs. Lee (Kheng Hua Tan) who is the Protector of the Phoenix. The responsibility shifts to Tom and his lack of preparation is always evident, they did well in keeping his training true to what it should have been.
Tom and Mr. Hu’s relationship is explored and resolved in a near one-to-one recreation that results in a tear-jerker resolution. You have both a reluctant teacher and student that lacks refinement, while the fate of the world is at stake. It’s not even just with Tom, Mr. Hu tends to not want to listen to the other eleven Zodiacs, and makes hail mary’s with zero regard to anyone else.
As mentioned before, they had a full turn with Räv as initially, she’s the one to lure Tom to his peril, but instead she actually teams up alongside him and the Zodiacs. This was disappointing to me, since that moment in the novel was the adolescent equivalent to the betrayal discovery in The Departed.
What I did enjoy was how they kept a pivotal instant that includes water, it forces Tom and the others to use their wits and not their claws. Also, the importance of charms was kept up to par with how dangerous it can be to not have them in place, even misplacement can render them useless.
Visuals and audio in Paramount+’s The Tiger’s Apprentice
As far as visuals go, the human representations of the twelve were absolutely perfect and nested each of the personalities as they would be. The demons sent after our protagonists were swift, and the smoggy trails they left behind exuded evil. The animal manifestations were fantastically smooth, and the action sequences had many humorous moments that were well-placed.
You’ve never seen a real fight if you haven’t heard a rabbit yell out “CUTE ATTACK!!!” followed up with a pig T-boning a demon. It’s just that there’s a certain lack of oomph overall in the tale that didn’t fully utilize this insane list of talent. At most, there were a couple of times that the Zodiacs argued among themselves that made for some clever zingers. But it felt like a big whiff to not aggrandize this story when you have all these great voices to ride alongside.
As a fan of old rock, somehow “Eye of the Tiger” was both expected and not. It’s very brief and absolutely appropriate for the moment. The other big needle drop was Flo Rida’s “Low”, that could only have happened with the change to 2009. I don’t think I minded it too much, as I was far too busy laughing.
Of course this is a movie about the Chinese Zodiac, so it was only fitting to include Teresa Teng’s (one of China’s most influential singers) “Tian Mi Mi” and “Moon Represents My Heart” that you may have heard in a Chinatown if you’ve ever ventured through one.
Further adventures and sequels to The Tiger’s Apprentice
The novels were a trilogy and explored more adventures with the Phoenix and Tom’s progression as the apprentice. Since the ending is just like the book, and there’s even an extra little scene at the end hinting what could come, I would like to see a return of Tom and Mr. Hu. The titles of the sequels were Tiger’s Blood and Tiger Magic. As we witnessed Tom only beginning to get a control of his magical powers, these follow-ups could provide some wonderful tales.
Even though this was initially slated as a theatrical release back in 2020, pushing it onto a streaming service years later may provide an opportunity for it to get those sequels. Whether they do or not, this story is self-contained and if it’s all I’m provided, then I’m just thrilled to get some form of adaptation. The other books should be given a shot, as they left an impact on me that had me curious 20 years later.
The Tiger’s Apprentice streams on Paramount+ starting February 2nd, 2024! Do you plan to watch it? Did you read the book? Let us know on our social media @mycosmiccircus or join The Cosmic Circus Discord and chat as soon as this feature releases.