Ne Zha, written and directed by Jiaozi. Starring Stella Fung and Ryan Kan. China, 110 minutes, IIA. Now playing. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
It’s bright and colorful. It has rich CG animation at a level that rivals any on cinema screens today. It’s a family-friendly, empowering tale about tolerance, teeming with mythical creatures and mysterious realms. No, we’re not talking about Frozen. This is writer-director Jiaozi’s (or Yang Yu’s) US$700 million-grossing behemoth, Ne Zha, one of the biggest animated hits since Disney’s icy sisters let it go in 2013.
The film is based, very loosely, on a Shang-Dynasty legend about the Chaos Pearl, which is cleaved into two to become the Demon Pill and the Spirit Pearl. Lord of Heaven orders the sunnier Spirit Pearl to be granted to the kindly Lord Li and his wife, Madame Yin. But when the bumbling immortal Taiyi fails at this task after being tricked by his nefarious brother, Gongbao, who swaps out the two pearls, Lady Yin ends up giving birth to Ne Zha (voiced in the Cantonese-dubbed version by Stella Fung), who is the reincarnation of the Demon Pill.
Meanwhile, the Spirit Pearl ends up in the hands of the Dragon King and is reincarnated as his son, Aobing (Ryan Kan).
The rest of the story is the classic stuff of fables and legends anywhere in the world; Ne Zha and Aobing (who looks like a magical teen from a Japanese manga) both grow up in the lonely shadows of isolation and fear and must each choose a side in the fight between destiny and free will, good and evil, destruction and creation.
(PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)
It’s easy to see why the film was so popular — even in international markets, where it was shown as a modest arthouse offering — as it blends the best traditions of Moana and Kung Fu Panda with a fresh story (at least for overseas audiences) and a new perspective. As an animated film, Ne Zha provides the kind of creative jolt the industry needs every so often (think The Red Turtle or Your Name).
The film is at its best when it’s at its most Chinese, which is when it leans into myth and legend and basks in images and colors that recall ancient Chinese art. It also shines when it gives up on the hyper-kineticism that has come to define big-studio animation in recent years.
While there are Disney/Pixar-type references and plenty of juvenile toilet jokes, the film and its characters also have a gleefully unruly tone that would never fly in the sterile productions from the House of Mouse. Ne Zha is an evil little brat and he’s allowed to be. The villagers are afraid of him and they’re allowed to make cruel, reactionary comments that sting and reinforce the cycle of hatred that drives much of the story. Sure, there’s a moderately happy ending, but the journey to get there is as difficult as it should be. It’s an admirable narrative tone to take at a time when children’s entertainment is often neutered to the point of meaninglessness. It’s also what gives Ne Zha personality — even if the film does fall into the trap of teasing a sequel.
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