The creatures of the Chinese zodiac walk the streets with an explosion happening behind them. The tiger is front and center.

‘Tiger’s Apprentice’ director Raman Hui enjoys being of ‘two worlds’ in animation

The Hong Kong-born animator talks “Tiger’s Apprentice,” zodiacs and more

"The Tiger's Apprentice" is now streaming on Paramount Plus.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Paramount+

Words by Caroline Cao

As a 7-year-old kid in Hong Kong, Raman Hui drew himself a dragon just for fun, not knowing the role the mythological creature would play in his professional career decades later. He grew up watching mecha anime and Disney animation like Pinocchio, yet he didn’t dream of an animation career. Then one day in college, he encountered an animation device ignored by the school. He drew a chubby cat. Six drawings later, he animated the cat tumbling down a hill. Right then and there, he resolved that he wanted to bring his drawn creatures to life.

It feels like fate that Hui ended up working on DreamWorks Animation projects like the Dragons: Race to the Edge television series. A story artist, character designer, and animation supervisor, Hui’s contribution to DreamWorks is a long list, ranging from Antz, to the Shrek movies (the third of which he co-directed), to Puss in Boots. He also directed the Chinese-Hong Kong film Monster Hunt and its sequel. His career has most recently come even more full circle as he directed The Tiger’s Apprentice, considering that he was born in the Year of the Tiger. From Hong Kong, Hui spoke to JoySauce over Zoom about his filmmaking process for The Tiger’s Apprentice, which was released on Paramount Plus earlier this month. 

You might have missed the announcement of Tiger’s Apprentice (co-directed by Paul Watling and Yong Duk Jhun), a Paramount Animation production now streaming on Paramount Plus, since it’s not as high profile as 2024 releases like Inside Out 2 or Kung Fu Panda 4. The production underwent its trials, initially having been slated for a theatrical screening but then scheduled for streaming. Adapting Laurence Yep’s 2003 young adult novel, the first in a trilogy, the project was announced in 2008 and almost planned as live action. Pixar animator Carlos Baena (now one of the executive producers for Tiger’s Apprentice) was once attached as director. The final product is CGI animated, and co-written by David Magee and Christopher Yost. Hui says he was approached for the directing role in 2019 after initially having consulted as an executive producer. During the early days of the pandemic he says, “everyone [was] trying to figure out how to get things done without being in the same room.” Having worked from home, he recounts getting up in the middle of the night to work with international production companies (including in Thailand, France, and Canada) to accommodate their time differences.

Tiger’s Apprentice centers on 13-year-old Chinese American Tom Lee (Brandon Soo Hoo), who is embarrassed to have a superstitious grandmother (Kheng Hua Tan, from Crazy Rich Asians, having a blast with the role) who covers their San Francisco house with charms—even his Chinese classmates think she’s overboard to the point of weirdness. Turns out, their bloodline is magic, a lineage of Guardians tasked with protecting the phoenix egg from the evil sorceress Loo (Michelle Yeoh). It’s then that he meets his grandmother’s old friend Mr. Hu, his magical tiger mentor (Henry Golding), and Tom’s Guardian training begins—complete with a montage to “Eye of the Tiger.” The inseparable mentor and student team up with other Zodiac creatures along the way.

A young Asian boy, a tall older man, and an elderly woman stand in a living room. The boy looks shocked. The tall older man is looking at the boy with a displeased expression.

Tom feels embarrassed by his superstitious grandmother.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Paramount+

“I lived [Tom’s] story,” Hui says, relating to Tom’s outcast status. For his animation studies, he moved to Silicon Valley, where he recounts staying quiet around co-workers since he spoke little English, and weekend travels to Chinatown for lunch and a movie. He also compares Tom’s grandmother and her charm fixation a little bit to his mother. He has a childhood memory of coming home with a scratch on his head, and his mother rubbing on a black ointment that left a conspicuous black dot. Though embarrassed to go to school with the black dot, his mom ordered, “Leave it on! Don’t take it down! Come home with that!” 

He also likens Tom’s shame to a Chinese kid’s anxiety about bringing Chinese food, like “Chinese tamale” zong, to a non-Asian-dominated school lunchroom and warding off classmates (a familiar lunchbox narrative many diaspora kids might know). “And you’ll be like ‘Oh no, I don’t want to unwrap this in front of my classmates!’…But when you become an adult, you’re proud to eat Chinese food,” he says. 

The film reimagines Yep’s story to factor in the Chinese Zodiac. The first book involves a five-person gang, with Tom, the tiger, the dragon (Sandra Oh from Quiz Show), the monkey, and the rat (Bowen Yang) without a Zodiac angle, but the movie integrates other Zodiac animals (integrating other star talents like Jo Koy, Greta Lee, Diana Lee Inosanto, Patrick Gallagher, Poppy Liu, and Deborah S. Craig). Being born the Year of the Tiger, Hui says the team had a good reason to expand the zodiacs. Since every viewer is born with a zodiac animal, it’s nice for everyone to see themselves represented in the film. 

A lot has changed from the source material. In one major example, the book’s male monkey—based on the notorious Monkey King—is reimagined as a female monkey, Naomi (Sherry Cola of Shortcomings and Joy Ride), without the storied Monkey King element. While Naomi’s shrinking powers remain inspired by the Monkey King’s tale, Hui said that they omitted the Monkey King element because that would raise “too many question marks” about the legendary mythological character that could eclipse the other characters. Likewise, the dragon Mistral (Oh) doesn’t convey an expansive backstory where her dragon brethren exiled her.

A tiger and a young Asian boy sit together on a railing, their heads turned towards each other. The boy is hearing a yellow hoodie. He looks concerned and his mouth is slightly open.

Not every troubled Asian teen has a magical tiger mentor.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Paramount+

Another major change also impacts the character of Rav, a two-timing fox who warms up to Tom’s compassion. Rav’s fox form didn’t work for the movie, so on screen, she is Tom’s human classmate (voiced by Leah Lewis) who integrates easily into the group. Hui likes Rav and Tom together, finding it amusing that one of the elder Chinese characters inquires, “Are you [high schoolers] married?” (When I playfully mutter “Asian parents,” referring to their habits of asking, “Do you have a boyfriend/girlfriend?” Hui knowingly echos back “Asian parents!”)

Needless to say, you can’t talk about the movie’s release without the criticism. It’s not a precise metric but it currently bears a critic’s 52 percent on Rotten Tomatoes among 31 reviews, some of which criticize the underrenderings and a fussy script. Hui also recounts comments like, “[movie was] too fast, didn’t have enough room to breathe more.” “I totally understand that the audience might have different opinions,” he admits humbly with a smile. “I think it’s a great way to learn.” 

Relatably, it’s with every project that he might wake up and think, “that shot can be better [or] why don’t we change the performance, but no, the movie is out there.” His ethos as an artist is to make his best decisions and move on.

It’s with every project that he might wake up and think, “that shot can be better [or] why don’t we change the performance, but no, the movie is out there.”

Hui is glad that the film got made and released (additional Tiger’s Apprentice installments have not been announced as of yet, despite a sequel hook). He’s optimistic about the animation industry inviting more diverse voices and creators. “When I worked in the animation industry in the U.S., it was hard to imagine that a studio would invest in a project that was so Asian American,” he muses. For him, it’s a blessing that a Chinese American story with an Asian cast got animated today, despite more than a decade of waiting. 

Being both a Hong Kong and American animator, he is proud to say, “I’m seeing both sides. It’s great!”

The Tiger’s Apprentice is now streaming on Paramount Plus.

Published on February 15, 2024

Words by Caroline Cao

Caroline Cao is an NYC-based writer. A queer Vietnamese American woman, she also won’t shut up about animation and theatre. She likes ramen, pasta, and fanfic writing. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @Maximinalist.