Having followed up his giddy 2004 martial arts comedy Kung Fu Hustle with 2008’s risible E.T.–inspired dud CJ7, director Stephen Chow returns to more familiar terrain with Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, a Buddhist fantasy adventure that unevenly hybridizes hectic combat, sappy romance, and slapstick humor.
In an ancient China of magic and monsters, Xuan Zhang (Wen Zhang) fights giant animalistic demons by bringing out their goodness via songs from a book of 300 nursery rhymes. This makes him a laughingstock among his peers save for Duan (Shu Qi), a badass beauty who immediately falls for Xuan Zhang because of his inherent goodness.
Their dull battles against fish, pig, and monkey beasts are staged by Chow with a self-aware, Mel Brooks–meets–Looney Tunes jokiness, and marked by CGI that’s somewhere between matte-painting beautiful and velvet-poster chintzy.
With a frizzy mop of hair and cartoonish naïveté plastered across his face, Xuan Zhang awkwardly pratfalls through his adventure while championing Buddha’s Greater Love over Duan’s Lesser Love, but such wannabe-profound philosophical rambling is dashed against the mood of childish frivolity.
The camera swoops and whooshes about but never generates any compelling energy — Chow’s film proves endlessly manic but devoid of much mirth.