Animal World is an exciting and intelligent Chinese adaptation of a Japanese manga from director Yan Han. A bit more style than substance, but I don’t care: loved it.
I’ve just finished watching Animal World, and my head is still spinning: damn, that was entertaining!
Animal World is the story of Kai-Si (Yi Feng Li), a kind-hearted and intelligent young man, who is sadly laden with more baggage than he can manage, and isn’t quite switched on enough to stay out of debt. When one particularly enormous debt has him despairing about his home and his mother’s medical bills, Kai-Si winds up in an exclusive casino cruise ship, competing in a cosmopolitan tournament of… wait for it… Rock, Paper, Scissors.
That might sound a bit dry, but trust me, Animal World is far from dull, despite conversations that focus on interest rates, and many, many scenes expanding on probability and gambling strategy. It works well for a number of reasons. For a start, Animal World is just as much about the gamblers, their ploys and motivations as it is about the actual tournament (just like Battle Royale is as much about the teenagers’ motivations and loyalties than the killings). Once the tournament part of the film starts (and that’s well over half of it), there is a lot to pay attention to, in a fast-moving, keep everyone on their toes way; you might not believe that in a story about Rock, Paper, Scissors, but it’s true!
The other thing that keeps Animal World from feeling slow – even in the scenes where it should – is the special effects. Animation is used to present game theory, and it adds a thin extra layer of intellect, as the illusion explanations in Now You See Me did. A balancing act is clearly required between the presentation of characters and the explanation of what they are dealing with: Molly’s Game largely omitted poker explanations, whereas they are spelt out stylishly here. It doesn’t matter if you follow all the tactics; but if you do, thanks to the animated game theory, you’ll feel very clever.
The characters are not neglected in favour of a pacy plot, but they don’t generally have much depth though. Kai-Si seems to have some development; may just be that his character doesn’t develop in that time, but rather shows itself in stages, with the plot. Minor characters, such as Fatty Meng (Ge Wang) surprise us at times, but that’s because we don’t really get to know them. So yes, there’s a lot to observe about how people work (especially how people respond differently to pressure), but not to any depth. The actors are not stretched terribly, but they all present characters the audience can believe in. I’m not sure if that would still be the case in a more slow and studied film, but in this, they do a fine job. Yi Feng Li has a much more varied part of course, but because anyone good at gambling keeps things close to their chest (metaphorically or not), it is not a particularly nuanced role.
And then there’s Michael Douglas… I hadn’t mentioned he is in what is essentially a Chinese film, but there you go! He plays Mr Anderson, the ringleader/director/don of the casino; and I’m surprised to say his presence is not as odd as it might sound. The players in the casino are people badly in need of paying off a debt, brought in to the cruise ship from all over the world (which is why I called it cosmopolitan earlier); so it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the man at the top is a wealthy white guy. I’ve seen another review which described his role as being a classic Al Pacino kind of character; though it felt to me more like – as the ringleader – he was getting his own back for everything that was done to him in The Game. Douglas plays his part with ease, of course, like a comic book baddie is a persona he can roll into straight out of bed after all these years. Why not?
Animal World is a Chinese adaptation of the manga Tobaku mokushiroku Kaiji; or rather one story from that series. I’ve not read those books, but from what I’ve gathered about the alterations Yan Han made, the adaptation was deftly done. There are some elements of the story which veer from thriller into sci-fi, but they are not as wild as they would be in a comic, so the plot did fit well into its medium. Han was the director, as well as being responsible for the screenplay, which explains why the adjustments to the pacing, characters, story and style helped make a film in which everything hung together so well.
But let me go back to the animation for a moment… CGI, in fact. CGI in a film about gambling? Well yes, there’s a killer clown, and wild alien type creatures; and a car chase; and long huge sweeping shots across the ship… all of which serve to suck the viewer into what Kai-Si is thinking or feeling behind his poker face. These don’t form a big proportion of the film (not as much as you might expect if you’ve seen the trailer), but they certainly contribute to the mood of it. As does the music: the soundtrack by Neal Acree and Michael Tuller is pulsating, energetic, but never overpowering.
Animal World is a gem: I wouldn’t have heard of it if it wasn’t for Netflix, and I wouldn’t have heard of the manga if it wasn’t for this film. It’s emotional in parts, interesting in parts and exciting nearly all the way through. There is some violence, but not enough to merit the 15 certificate in my opinion. Recommended, even to my precocious eleven-year-old.