You can’t watch The Arti: The Adventure Begins without finding yourself in awe of the amazing puppet work on display. While told it was only “enhanced” by CGI, it looks as though a lot more was computer-generated than such a verb would infer. For one, the smoothness at which the characters move seems impossible and two there appears to be too many instances of fake backgrounds and green-screen effects to believe there weren’t other shortcuts taken. So it definitely behooves you to stay for the end credits sequence—the short stinger at the end not withstanding—to see some behind the scenes footage of the puppeteers at work. The elaborate detail taken with props and creatures is astounding and almost everything was realized practically.

I only wish the story had something new to say rather than its usual eastern tale of Mother Nature and the symbiotic relationship all God’s creations must nurture to survive. There’s obviously more involved considering much of the plot hinges on a wooden robot using Kung Fu to vanish those in his and his masters’ (siblings Mo and Tong Zhang) way. But even his centerpiece is a vessel for the Origin or Pristine Heart or as you’ve probably heard before Gaia. It’s this glowing life source that gives this man-made invention named Arti-C consciousness and humanity ancient healing powers as long as peace remains intact. Mo and Tong seek it merely to make good on their father’s quest to let the robot coexist with man—a wish that ultimately killed him as a so-called traitor.

The Zhangs’ good intentions aside, the battle for the Origin truly lies between the Lu-lan people and the Lop. The former was well-versed in the Arti tradition before Prince Angelo’s uncle took the thrown and brought politics and economics to the forefront in lieu of military conquest and technology. The latter are the keepers of the light—possibly the villains of this tale or perhaps its misunderstood heroes. Their inevitable war stems from the actions of sandworms ravaging towns for what Lou-lan believes is malicious intent despite the Lop holding fast to the notion it’s in self-defense. And with Arti-C slowly powering down as the last of his Origin fades, Mo and Tong must choose a side and reconcile their desire to restore their family’s reputation or save the world.

Such an ambitious yarn isn’t unsurprising for a wuxia film like this, but it also isn’t anything new. It doesn’t help that a good third of the runtime is spent in the midst of a martial arts tournament either. Don’t get me wrong: its inclusion is necessary to allow certain pieces to fall into place. I just wonder if it might have been handled differently. This could be my western sensibility and conditioning to assume a movie can exist based on this challenge alone—how many examples spanning Bloodsport to Mortal Kombat show this to be true? I should be happy that there was such an extended piece of drama before the actual action takes place, but knowing pyramid was merely a stepping-stone made it somewhat underwhelming.

That’s hard for me to say considering the best puppet work and fight choreography is born from this second act. Tong gets a great sparring match in at the beginning, but it’s nothing compared to Arti-C in the championship round against a warrior with metal darts thrown and reacquired via magnetic force. It’s a brilliant culmination of all the faux wirework we’ve learned to love thanks to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon‘s international appeal and a gorgeous display of aesthetic flourishes with flowing capes billowing in the wind. This session in the ring may even overshadow the climactic battle between wooden warriors beefed up with Pristine Heart coursing through their veins although that one’s fiery colors against the dark sky is beautiful in its own right too.

I will say the whole would have worked wonders on me as a teen—the demographic I think Arti really plays to well. The humor is of a more juvenile and wink, wink variety with silly moments like Arti-C punching his gargantuan opponent in the butt before fart noises escape and mocking one-liners that elicit a giggle before the action moves forward. In this respect the rather familiar plotting can be forgiven because the story is just the backbone to visuals and entertainment value its audience has come to see. Huang Liang Hsun‘s script is therefore constructed to deliver as many exciting fight scenes as possible while also spicing in a couple twists and allegiance changes to keep things interesting. At a certain point everything else falls away once the puppets are set in motion.

Between Huang Wen Chang‘s direction and the impressive cinematographer allowing the proceedings to feel “real” with close-ups of feet and legs kicking and even a pretty shot from below of Lop goddess Fair walking on water, it does become more impressive feat of ingenuity than anything else. I don’t mean this with disrespect: it’s just tough not to let the surface sheen takeover. I applaud the filmmakers for adding a healthy dose of death and destruction as well as important yet difficult themes of morality and love and family being more than blood. There are lessons about being kind to your neighbor and the earth, sacrifice for the greater good, and an understanding of mankind’s place as an equal to creatures big and small. It’s an impressive feat of artistry that truly delights despite any shortcomings.

The Arti: The Adventure Begins is currently playing at the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival.

Grade: B-

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