When it comes to family entertainment, there are more options out there than anyone knows what to do with. Series, films, short form, episodic, really anything you might want to either distract a child or use as a means for a group activity. Back in May 2023, Viva Kids released Rally Road Racers, a colorful and fun racing film that also worked as an exploration of self-confidence and friendship. Now, perhaps you’re looking for something a little more October-centric, but still safer than the “Legend of Sleepy Hollow” portion of The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949) (which will forever be seared into my adolescent memory). Viva Kids offers the Julio Soto Gúrpide-directed, Rocco Pucillo-written Inspector Sun starring Ronny Chieng (Joy Ride) as the voice of Inspector Sun, a mystery solving huntsman spider. While it may not be on the same level as animated mystery classic The Great Mouse Detective (1986), Inspector Sun may at least solve the case of the wild children, offering a grossly entomologically correct distraction.
1934 Shanghai: Inspector Sun (voiced by Ronny Cheing) is hot on the trail of villain Red Locust (voiced by Rich Orlow), but the result of their confrontation is mixed. Red Locust is caught, but Sun is kicked off the force. Seeking opportunities elsewhere, Sun boards a plane for the United States, but is quickly wrapped up in a new mystery that seemingly involves his old foe. Thousands of feet in the air with a dead body and many suspects, this huntsman spider is put to the ultimate test as danger lurks around every corner.
There’s some cleverness within the conceit of Inspector Sun and it all begins with the logic of the world. Unlike A Bug’s Life (1998), which never acknowledges the human realm, or Ernest & Celestine (2012), which doesn’t appear to have one, Inspector Sun constantly does, illustrating that the world we’re entering is just like our own, but beneath the world we know. The opening scene may feature Inspector Sun trying to cleverly navigate his way from a rural part of Shanghai to the docks, but it’s with his arrival that we, the audience, learn that he may be finely dressed with a cane and sentient, but he’s still just a spider, a spider that exists within a realm of insects just like him who operate on a scale similar to our own, just within it. Even the plane Sun boards is little more than a subspace within the plane proper dolled up to look like bed rooms, storage, dining areas with dance space, and other refinements. This cleverness on the part of first-time scribe Rocco Pucillo enables the characters to be more easily anthropomorphized for easier connection, whether it be out of concern for their safety or amusement for their situation. This also enables for more humorous applications of objects of our world to theirs, like a group of spider bodyguards that fire web balls like bullets in an action sequence and the use of webbing for handcuffs. There’s, of course, the expected low brow humor born of entomology (the “captain” of the plane is a fly who eats poo) that’s meant to elicit chuckles from the crowd. When the balance is right between the creative and the expected, Sun is a good time.
Where the film falters is largely in the character of Sun himself. His arc is battling his reputation as “lucky” versus actually being intelligent and coming to terms with which one he is. The issue is that the character is conceited enough to believe he’s actually clever and too few around him tell him the truth. This results in far too many sequences where the joke is that Sun is a beat behind someone as they lay out a factoid of some kind with him either trying to take the credit or saying it was his idea. The character appears to either be in *deep* denial or lacks the awareness to recognize how frequently he does this and, with several characters being female-coded, it also has him come off as entirely misogynistic. We’re meant to root for Sun, yet he’s the kind of high-confidence buffoon that I rarely engage with primarily because he lacks the charm or charisma to make these antics forgivable.
Look, it’s a family film, and while it would be great if every one of them had the depth of Nimona (2023) or Elemental (2023), the craftsmanship of Across the Spider-Verse (2023), or the means to make the act of sport or music even more dynamic (The First Slam Dunk and BLUE GIANT, respectively (both 2023)), sometimes it’s enough to just entertain. Sure, one could try to make an argument that Paws of Fury: The Legend of Hank (2022) is really a take on racism, but all my eldest son knows is the fart jokes and cat puns and that’s enough (especially because that film really didn’t go as deep as its source material). Here, with Inspector Sun, you get the latter, a way to entertain via goopy and gross antics with a little daring action and loads of bad jokes. This is going to be enough for families looking to just enjoy themselves and, sometimes, that’s all you really need.
In theaters October 27th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Viva Kids Inspector Sun webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.
This piece was written during the SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.