Partially funded through Kickstarter and largely banned throughout its native China, Busifan’s The Guardian is an ambitious animated fairy tale equal parts high fantasy, wuxia, and Western. Set in a period of timeless antiquity, the film sees a grumpy, roly-poly warrior named Da Hu Fa (Xiao-Lian-Sha) set out on a quest to retrieve a missing prince aptly named Prince (Tu-Te-Ha-Meng) after he runs away from his imperial duties. Along the way the two stumble across a dystopian village where a race of humanoid peanut creatures are ruled by a tyrannical fairy whose enforcers summarily execute anyone who comes down with a mysterious plague. With its heavy anti-authoritarian bent and surprisingly graphic violence—the film awarded itself a PG-13 rating—it’s easy to see why it earned the ire of the Chinese government. Its arrival overseas was met with some fanfare by animation enthusiasts and supporters of the film’s leftist politics. It has become that rare thing for an animated feature: a bona fide cause célèbre.
It’s also a colossal train wreck. For all the production team’s can-do gumption and bravery for thumbing its nose at Beijing, the storytelling is so incompetent one can’t help but wonder how it made it past storyboarding. This isn’t like some bloated Hollywood blockbuster where the producers can demand changes that cripple the film’s coherency—look no further than Tomas Alfredson’s The Snowman (2017) for an example—or some under-funded indie helmed by a wannabe Orson Welles with none of their idol’s talent. Every sequence, every shot, every frame was meticulously planned, drawn, inked, and painted by an unknown number of creatives who believed this was the best method of telling their story. And still The Guardian feels less like a single film than two episodes of two different television shows cross-projected onto the same screen like some SoHo art installation.
Much of this comes from the film’s refusal to establish anything, not its characters, not its setting, not even its story. It begins with Da Hu Fa entering a mysterious land, cryptically monologuing to himself about retrieving the Prince. Who is he? How did he become a great warrior? Why does he have the ability to shoot electric-chi energy with an iron rod he wields like a rifle? For that matter, who’s the Prince? And who’s the emperor who ordered Da Hu Fa to undertake the quest? None of this is explained. Instead we watch as he encounters some peanut people, finds their town, grimaces at the oppression of their people, stares in wonder at a giant black peanut the size of the Goodyear Blimp hovering above them, and scurries off to continue his search. Along the way he encounters a medieval bestiary’s worth of strange creatures like mosquitoes that turn into flowers, but again, they’re not commented on, neither is the more pressing fact that there’s apparently a race of PEANUT PEOPLE.
Things get even more complicated when we finally meet the Prince, whom we discover has bonded with several other supporting characters who are themselves never properly introduced, including a human boy named Ming (You-Wu-Yue-Shan) and one of the peanut people he’s taken a liking to. When Da Hu Fa confronts the Prince, they bicker like people who’ve known each other for years, but we’re not given any insight into their shared history. On their journey back to their kingdom, they get pulled back into the intrigue concerning the peanut people, discovering the fairy is actually a human being orchestrating the plague so he can harvest a special stone that grows in them when they get sick. This scheme and a lengthy lecture on the peanut people’s life cycle gets spat at the audience by two more poorly established supporting characters in an obscene exposition dump.
And so on, and so on.
The Guardian is a sterling example of a story that tells instead of shows. It expects us to intuit the world’s lore and glean the characters’ personalities and backstories from what little information is provided. But the film presents itself as a straightforward action story and as such features straightforward action beats and pacing. There’s a fundamental disconnect between the filmmakers’ intent and their methods, making what could have been one of the best animated movies of the year sorely disappointing.