People in the West often wring their hands over films that seem to pander to the rising Chinese market. Some animated films appear to be following this trend. For example, Julio Soto Gúrpide’s Inspector Sun (titled Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow when first released in Spain last year), written by Rocco Pucillo, features a Chinese protagonist (voiced by Ronny Chieng) for no discernible reason. (The Spanish voice actor is Jesús Barreda — RIP.) There’s nothing intrinsically Chinese about the cardboard characters, the rote and plodding plot, or the painfully unfunny sense of humor, such as it is. Indeed, the fact that the story starts in Shanghai is barely noticeable.

As the title might suggest, Inspector Sun is a detective story. But the titular detective is vain and incompetent, and more than one character calls his record of success merely being “lucky.” Oh, and he’s a huntsman spider, with the catchphrase (because of course he has one), “The huntsman hunts alone.” Other characters are jumping spiders, flies, beetles, ants, and assassin bugs, which Wikipedia just told me are a very real thing. The “black widow” in the original title is meant literally, though I didn’t hear mention of any curse.

The world-famous detective boards a seaplane to San Francisco. The black widow’s (Jennifer Childs Greer) latest husband (Scott Geer) is murdered on board, and she denies doing it. Enter Sun, hounded by an obnoxious jumping spider fangirl named Janey (Emily Kleimo); think of the kid in Up (2009). By studying Sun’s life and cases, Janey has become actually competent, and most of the productive lines of investigation are instigated by her, before being appropriated by Sun, who then turns around and tells her to stay out of the way, all of which is played for laughs. Yes, it’s that kind of film. As a jumping spider, Janey also serves as the muscle.

So to recap, the title character is a shitty detective in both brains and brawn, and an even worse person. He’s not exceptionally animated, either — almost nothing in this film is. Surely he’s funny, at least? He’s voiced by Ronny Chieng, after all. Alas, Sun only has three (lame) jokes, repeated ad nauseam: He breaks whatever he touches, takes figurative sayings literally, and studiously avoids reaching obvious conclusions (in the sense of negatively answering “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”). Chieng can’t even be his usual caustic self, as the film is definitely aimed at the kiddie market.

In short, I really wanted a different protagonist. And not Janey.

Maybe the black widow, Arabella Killtop? Childs Greer deploys her best sultry voice for this femme fatale, newly widowed and with a complicated past. What must events look like through her eyes? How does it feel to bear a species stigma, with a string of dead husbands that others can point to (though not all of her exes are dead)? In a multispecies storyworld that, like in Zootopia (2016), relies heavily on stereotypes, this story strikes me as the most fascinating.

The storyworld is the film’s only strength, albeit still underdeveloped. The minuscule scale of the characters allows the classic closed-room mystery setting to expand to grand scales. They exist in the interstices of the seaplane for humans (we meet the humans in one action-packed scene), and in the interstices of their world exist the ants, led by their queen (Jeanette Grace Gonglewski). The ants are the service workers of the plane, but like the freemasons of conspiracy lore, they’re also the plane’s eyes and ears, reporting to both their queen and the captain (Iain Batchelor), who’s a fly.

Yet even here, the filmmakers have a poor grasp of appropriate humor. One meal scene has character-specific food, including poop (eaten with a fork) and a live — and wriggling! — insect sushi (webbed up and slurped through a straw). Elsewhere, one of the fireflies used as a dinner candle escapes its glass, shouting, “I’m free!” Maybe kids have a different filter, but I found these scenes disgusting and/or existentially terrifying.

To balance that out, the film has only two sources of cuteness. As Sun follows a trail of ants, he comes across a lively barking dog in the cargo hold, with its big black nose and stupid fluffy face. Let’s not contemplate what happens to the poor pooch (yet another example of the filmmakers’ poor grasp of audience expectations). The other cute character type is the seagull, which Sun harnesses with his web to ride like a dragon. The character design here captures well the mixture of menace and adorable idiocy that often characterizes a small wild animal.

Anyway, this film exists. I hope Chieng was paid handsomely.

Inspector Sun hits US theaters October 27.

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TNL Editor: Kim Chan (@thenewslensintl)

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