My Life as McDull (2001) Movie Review

If there’s one thing I can fault “My Life as McDull” for, it’s that the movie, running at a scant 70 minutes, gets perhaps a bit too somber toward the end. While there’s no doubt that the movie’s original creators (and screenwriters) Alice Mak and Brian Tse have more in mind than just a simple children’s fantasy, “McDull’s” more serious elements will nevertheless leave something of a bitter taste in most viewer’s mouth.

The world of “McDull” is a parallel Hong Kong where humans occupy the same stretch of congested streets, sidewalks, and tenement buildings as animals. McDull and his mother are both pigs, and McDull has other animals for friends. While the movie, with constant narration by an adult McDull, makes mention of the McDulls as “swines”, the movie dodges the question of inter-species cohabitation. Granted, this type of question isn’t very important in a cartoon, but you’d think there would be some sort of explanation if mention were made in the first place. Why even bring it up, then?

“My Life as McDull” has a brilliant first half. The animation, under the direction of Toe Yuen, is quite impressive. Yuen and his animators give us panoramic views of Hong Kong, a city in constant motion, constant chaos, and constricted to the core and only getting more so. The city is teeming with life, and predictability has gone out the window. The only constant is the devotion by McDull’s mother (Sandra Ng) to her son, who is quite average in every way the real world uses to make distinctions about a person’s worth. That’s not to say that McDull is a dummy. He’s just not all that bright, and a hilarious scene where he attempts to order food at a restaurant is laugh-out loud funny.

The restaurant mentioned above also happens to be own by McDull’s “white” school principal (Anthony Wong), who shows up later as other characters, including as a news anchorman (although his character design never changes). At its core, “McDull” is a touching and heartwarming story about a single mother struggling to survive in a city where she and her son are average. The only thing not average about them is her loving devotion to him and vice versa. McDull’s goal in life is to please his mother and to make her proud of him; while Mrs. McDull struggles to give her son everything he wants, while at the same time hiding the fact that she can’t afford most of it from him. (Incidentally, the movie never mentions what happened to McDull’s father.)

Sandra Ng (“Dance of a Dream”) is fine as Mrs. McDull, a single mom who made a wish to a flying pan (just go with it) when she was in labor with McDull. Her wish? That her son will grow up to be handsome and lucky, just like international movie star Chow Yun Fat. Of course as it turns out McDull is neither all that bright, handsome, or lucky. The best demonstration of his lack of luck is when, after pursuing a surfing legend in order to become his student (and win an Olympic medal), McDull discovers that the legend (also Anthony Wong) has since given up teaching surfing, and now wants to concentrate on teaching bun snatching!

“McDull” opens well, with a powerful first half involving McDull as he fantasizes about traveling to a paradise called Maldives. The fantasy is something he doesn’t understand, but of course the filmmakers are making a distinction between the sandy (and most important of all, empty) beaches of the paradise against the crowded and congested world of Hong Kong. Or a “world outside of the world” as the place is called. The second half is bit more serious, and perhaps too much so. Granted, I don’t expect all animation to be cute and cuddly with a life-affirming message, but I can’t shake a nagging feeling that “McDull” ambushed me.

All in all, “My Life as McDull” is a worthwhile film. Its first half is masterfully done, with some inspired animation, great comedy, and terrific character studies. The second half is a bit too adult for a movie that just opened with laughs and cute moments for a long stretch. Although “McDull” seems to be using traditional cel animation, there are a number of variations, some fitting in better than others. We get some simple pencil drawings for a sequence involving a turkey, and then later live video of an adult McDull.

The movie itself works for the most part, although I’m not sure why an image of McDull sitting outside his mother’s tombstone, with narration telling us about her cremation, was necessary. Of course death is a part of everyday life, but this isn’t real life. This is a cartoon — one starring a talking pig, no less. The ironic thing is that excising that single line, and the corresponding 5-second scene, about the death of McDull’s mother would have done it. The movie would still retain its innocent elements, while at the same time getting across its point that not everyone is destined for the stars, and that being humble and average is sometimes good enough.

Toe Yuen (director) / Alice Mak, Brian Tse (comic), Brian Tse (screenplay)
CAST: Jan Lamb …. McDull (Adult)
Sandra Ng …. Mrs. McDull
Anthony Wong …. School Principal and Logan

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