A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Guardian Brothers (also known as Little Door Gods) is an animated tale about guardian spirits who want to help protect humans in a modern era when humans have abandoned interest in the spiritual world. This Chinese production was edited and dubbed into English, which may be why logical flow and character motivation are questionable. Cartoon depictions of towering evil spirits may prove frightening for younger kids, and older ones may find the plot confusing and ill-conceived. A rival restaurant owner spikes the soup of the restaurant next door with ingredients that give patrons the runs and causes the health department to close the place down. When a buried evil spirit is unleashed, destruction and chaos result, causing black clouds and thunder and sending humans running for their lives.
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What's the story?
In THE GUARDIAN BROTHERS, the changing modern world has put two guardian spirits, Yu lei (Edward Norton) and Shen tu (Dan Fogler), out of business. Belief in spirits is dying out as an older generation passes. Single mom Luli (Nicole Kidman) has inherited her deceased mother's soup shop, but not her mother's belief that guardian spirits protect their family. She and her daughter, Rain (Bella Thorne), struggle to compete as the restaurant owner next door, Rogman (Mel Brooks), plots sabotage at every turn. In the spirit world, Yu lei is yearning to go back to the human realm to help them and others, but the mayor of the spirit place is forbidding such work in retaliation against humans for ignoring the spirit world. When Yu lei learns that, long ago, the spirit world had teamed up with humans to beat back and neutralize the all-powerful shape-shifting evil spirit Nian, he sets out to unleash Nian. His goal is to re-create that spirit-human harmonious cooperation once again, but he doesn't give much thought to what a bother all that free-floating evil is going to be. Younger viewers may find the loud, enormous, tree-like Nian -- and the dark, thundering, smoking effects his evil evokes -- frightening.
Is it any good?
Meryl Streep's unmistakable narrative voice soothes us into this animated tale, setting up a false sense that this originally Chinese-language movie is going to be as good as she is. Stellar talents have lent their voice talents to The Guardian Brothers, and the contributions of Edward Norton, Mel Brooks, Mike Birbiglia, Bella Thorne, Dan Fogler, and Nicole Kidman help mask the disjointed, illogical allegory about, well, it's hard to say what. The Weinstein Company served as producers, perhaps helping to lure the American cast, but so many oddities make this movie more of a puzzle than an entertainment. The rest of the credits -- including director, writer, and animators -- boast mostly Chinese names, and Chinese writing appears on posters and menus throughout the movie, which is why it feels like a truly strange choice by the Chinese filmmakers to draw most of the main characters as decidedly Caucasian.
Equally mystifying is the way guardian spirit Yu lei persists in the quest to release the all-powerful super evil spirit Nian, the purpose of this folly being to reunite the human and spirit world in harmony. No one watching this is going to buy that crazy idea, yet it's the sustaining theme of the movie. In order to accomplish his mission, Yu lei must unearth ancient secret hiding places, and he does so with remarkable ease, as if he'd looked up the locations on Google. In short, beautiful animation and great voice performances seem utterly wasted on a badly told, logic-challenged story. The fact that the most powerful, most gigantic evil force on Earth turns out to be scared of fireworks just caps the absurdity of the entire enterprise. Some of these issues may relate to the fact that the Chinese language version was longer.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about whether good and evil spirits exist. Do you think a guardian spirit is watching over you? Or would it just be fun to think so?
In The Guardian Brothers, Yu lei believes that he can unite humans and spirits by unleashing a terrible enemy to them both. Do you think that sounds like a good idea? What might go wrong with it?
How does this Chinese animated tale compare to Western cartoons you've seen? What are the similarities and differences?
- In theaters: January 1, 2016
- On DVD or streaming: September 6, 2017
- Cast: Meryl Streep, Edward Norton, Dan Fogler, Mike Birbiglia, Mel Brooks, Bella Thorne, Nicole Kidman
- Directors: Gary Wang, Terrence Stone, Paulette Victor-Lifton
- Studio: Netflix
- Genre: Family and Kids
- Run time: 85 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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