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Jan 04 2020

Best Animated Feature Contenders: "Ne Zha"


Thus far in this round-up of 2019's animated features, we've been focusing on Oscar hopefuls and the more artsy side of animation. This week's subject,Ne Zha, is neither of those things, but in its own way, this is still as significant as any other film we've looked at. This is a blockbuster of the first order: the second-highest-grossing Chinese film in history (and the second-highest-grossing film made in a language other than English), with the highest single-territory gross for any animated film ever made. And even though stories about the Chinese box office always have to come with an asterisk attached (those numbers are often cooked a bit, especially when records are in play), that is by any means enough of a big deal that it's more than a little frustrating that essentially nobody in the United States has heard about any of this.

Ne Zhais a film the Chinese animation industry has been working towards for a long time. Along with the rest of Chinese cinema, animation has spent most of the last decade looking to beat Hollywood at its own game, providing the kind of opulent spectacle that for a long time was the exclusive domain of big-budget American filmmaking...

And wouldn't you know, butNe Zhahas come pretty close to meeting that goal: studio Chengdu Coco Cartoon's work here is, in some ways, just as good or even better than anything you'd see from Pixar or Disney. In some other ways, to be sure, it isn't, but that seems to speak to matters of different taste as much as talent.

This is the origin story of one of the major figures in traditional Chinese folklore (reflected in the original title, which translates in full asBirth of the Demon Child Ne Zha),一个混沌恶魔生人类的军事领袖nd his wife as the result of some extremely complicated shenanigans involving godlike beings fighting with each other. Suffice it to say that Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) is the good, but hapless and gluttonous spirit being who has been tasked with keeping Ne Zha (Lu Yanting as a child, Jiongsensefu as an adolescent) from being too destructive, while Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei), a greedy and power-hungry spirit being, has formed an alliance with the Dragon King that will end in generally bad things for humanity if it's not stopped.

Also, Ne Zha has a three-year ticking clock attached to his existence: the most supreme of the spirit beings, Yuanshi Tianzun, has cursed the Demon Orb that he contains within him, so that it will be destroyed by unstoppable heavenly lightning. I absolutely promise that this is the simplest version of this plot synopsis that I could write.

The good news is that the film's actual concern is much simpler: Ne Zha, as a three-year-old, has already aged up to the level of tween bad boy, and the movie's story is the stuff of stock kids' movies from around the world. That is, he's a social misfit, he feels like people hate him when he tries to be true to himself, and he learns how to be less self-centered thanks to the intervention of new best friend Ao Bing (Han Mo), who happens to be the son of the Dragon King, and Ne Zha's exact spiritual opposite. This means that their friendship has world-threatening stakes attached to it, which makes it feel somewhat less like a stock kids' movie, to its benefit.Ne Zhatakes place in a time of mythic timelessness; I do not myself know much of anything about the folklore involved, but the social assumptions and even the morality of the story have an enjoyable archaism to them.

有一个真正的fi超凡脱俗的感觉lm, a sense that the universe it inhabits is inherently more violent and somehow smaller than our own; smaller in the way of a story that can cover the entire history of humanity in the goings-on of one valley. This is all it takes to refresh the boilerplate clichés of Ne Zha's "be yourself" character arc, and even make them appealingly weird by presenting them in such an off-kilter context.

不过,我没有来这里告诉你如何director Jiaozi (born Yang Yu; his professional name is a type of dumpling) was able to apply American narrative tropes to Chinese folklore, as offbeat (and sometimes irritating) as the results are. I came to talk about the film's imagery, and howNe Zhahas put the Chinese animation industry on relatively equal footing with its American competition. Not consistently, I should say. The character animation isn't impressive, with human skin moving stiffly, like we're watching a world made up of plastic toys. The characterdesign, mind you, is slightly great: Ne Zha in particular, with his giant, kohl-rimmed eyes, looks both cute and unpleasantly aggressive. The film looks pretty great in stills – it's only when characters start moving that we find ourselves standing on the shallow slopes of the Uncanny Valley.

Where the film really shines is in its effects animation, which is the star of the show in some ways: much ofNe Zhais focused on Ne Zha and Ao Bing's superpowers manifesting, and with the oddly conspicuous example of fire, all of these things look outstanding: slime has a gross, sticky presence; shards of ice glisten and glint with a sheen equal to anything inFrozen; rolling thunderstorms cast a heavy, gloomy lighting that feels as mythologically grand as the rest of the movie put together. The climactic battle sequence is one of the best versions of the "light show wizard's duel" formula out there. And the film uses a floating, flying camera with an ambition that I have maybe never seen in an American film: we're often perched from some physically impossible vantage point and then diving into the action choreography with a kinetic flow that's completely unimaginable in live-action. It's exciting and dazzling, with some of the most genuinely spectacular spectacle I have seen in an animated feature. That's worth a bit of narrative cliché, and certainly worth more than the almost complete silence with which the film has been received in the West.

More on the Animated Contenders
Frozen 2
This Magnificent Cake
Missing Link(Interview)
White Snake
Ne Zha
I Lost My Body
How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

The 32 Eligible Films

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Reader Comments (2)

Haven't seen this one. My favourite of the non-American-sequels is PROMARE.

January 5, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

It was refreshing to see some original movie on uncharted narrative territories. The movie is absolutely silly fun when I watched it.

January 5, 2020 |Unregistered CommenterFadhil

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