One rule of comedy is to make it big. Instead of a single pie to the face, try a fusillade and a slippery shoving match. Rather than a couple of anchormen trading insults, why not a street fight? And when it comes to a battle royal, you really cant top Buddha for administering a beat down.
That final example comes from a memorable climactic battle inJourney to the West, the latest, buoyantly cartoonish comedy from the Hong Kong star Stephen Chow. Returning to the same 16th-century adventure that fueled A Chinese Odyssey, which 20 years ago featured this multitalented comedian as the Monkey King, Mr. Chow energizes his new film with computer animation that, when the timings right, brings a playfully elastic sense of scale.
Theres ample opportunity for pixel-aided fantasy, since this episodic movie rolls along in a world of demon hunters and the monsters they seek. The mop-haired Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang) is our ostensible hero, a meek Buddhist acolyte with an unshakable dedication to the straight and narrow, and, bafflingly, a book of nursery rhymes for a guide. But its actually a tomboyish huntress, Miss Duan (Shu Qi, nimble and winning), who does most of the vanquishing and who saves his bacon in a gruesome restaurant run by a treacherous, shape-shifting boar demon known as KL Hogg.
The film is a tumbling series of adventures in which the spiritually evolving Xuan Zang is swept up with Miss Duan and her crew and swiftly becomes the object of her clumsy courtship. The restaurant scene is but one of many rollicking sequences with a focused sense of excess and a fairy-tale edge of menace. A veteran comedic auteur whose notable recent releases in the United States include Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, Mr. Chow stays behind the camera, deploying comic and visual invention from a supernaturally capacious bag for holding outsize demons to a tentacled sea monster gobbling wide-eyed villagers off docks and assorted rigging.
This isnt all executed with clean, skintight computer animation, mind you: Miss Duan, for example, flings infinite golden attack rings like a video game character and busts up baddies into clouds of rather chunky dust. But theres a physical immediacy to the sometimes humble magic made by Mr. Chow and his visual effects supervisor, Ken Law. When a kung fu master powers up his secret weapon a gargantuan killer foot you feel the impact; when the Monkey King (Huang Bo) bears down and lashes out with all his force, you shudder a little for mankind.
The Monkey King, with a squat, compact form that carries the pent-up rage of years of cursed imprisonment, is among a number of Mr. Chows vigorous weirdos. Theres also a pallid, recumbent demon hunter in robes named Prince Important, who flicks out daggers from a box but struggles with his entourage of feisty older women. Miss Duan herself is no perfect heroine (much less one of theromantic leads Ms. Shu has played), and she guides her rude crew from a ramshackle house on wheels powered by a spectacularly clumsy method of combustion.
These oddballs tend to run circles around Xuan Zang, even more than necessary, though the character comes into his own as circumstances demand more profound spiritual engagement. Mr. Chow has perhaps achieved more sustained and elaborate adventures, but he hits a sweet spot of comedy that never grows too self-aware or forgets the value of a good, clean demon whomping.
-NICOLAS RAPOLD, THE NEW YORK TIMES