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Animation Reanimated
Success of Ne Zha has revived hopes for a bright future of Chinese animated films
By Li Xiaoyu | VOL.11 September ·2019-09-19

A visitor takes photo with a figure from Boonie Bears at China (Shenzhen) International Cultural Industries Fair in 2014 (MAO SIQIAN)

When people speak about Chinese animated films, most of them cannot help fa lling into the cliché: "Seriously, it exists? They are not terrible? Animation is for children…" Li Xing, a 21-year-old student, also held such views. But after seeing the new Chinese animated film Ne Zha, his misconceptions disappeared. "I did not expect to see such a good story with amazing visual effects in an exciting genre," he said.

Li is not the only admirer of the film, as shown by the box office figures. On the day of its release on July 26, the film recorded revenues of $91.5 million. Ten days after its debut in theaters, the proceeds of the film amounted to $340 million, crushing the previous record of the Chinese animation market, held for three years by Zootopia, a film from Disney studio, with the revenue of $236 million. According to a forecast by Maoyan, China's leading cinema ticketing platform, the film's total revenue would reach more than $600 million, making it the third-biggest success story in the Chinese film history, behind Wolf Warrior II ($840 million) and The Wandering Earth ($690 million).

Adapted from the literary classic The Investiture of the Gods, the feature film is inspired by the Chinese myth of Ne Zha, the son of a deity who fought his dark destiny to become the heroic protector of the innocents.

In the eyes of Dai Bin, Deputy Director of Tencent's Interactive Entertainment Platform Department, Ne Zha's success is not a matter of luck. "When an industry reaches certain maturity, a phenomenal product inevitably appears," he said. Indeed, it is the flourishing of the Chinese animation industry as a whole that is behind this phenomenon.

Favorable market

According to a report on the development of the Chinese animation industry published at the end of 2018 by iResearch, a consultancy focusing on the Chinese market, the total value of the production of the industry has reached 153.6 billion yuan ($22 billion) in 2017. This growth is fueled in large part by the rise of the ACGN subculture (animation, comic, games and novel), a phenomenon born in Japan. According to iResearch estimates, the number of ACGN fans was 350 million in China in 2018.

The popularity of the ACGN subculture has led to an increasing number of investments in the Chinese animation industry. Since the release of Monkey King: Hero Is Back in 2015, several film companies such as Beijing Enlight Media and Huayi Brothers Media have created their own animation divisions, looking for profitable investment opportunities. Animation companies like Shanghai Animation Film Studio and CCTV Animation spared no effort to produce new cartoons. In 2016, the number of investments reached a record of 125, up from five in 2010. The growing confidence of investors and producers has in turn enabled the industry to modernize its production system.

Poster of the film Ne Zha (FIFE)

Striking a chord

The two successful animated films in the Chinese market, Monkey King: Hero Is Back and Ne Zha, have something in common: They are based on traditional Chinese culture. Indeed, it helps the film to strike a chord with the audience. Despite his skepticism about animated films, the student Li wanted to see Ne Zha because the story is familiar to him and reminded him of his childhood. "I was eager to discover how the filmmaker was going to represent this myth," he said.

Director Yang Yu, more commonly known as Jiaozi, did not disappoint him. Compared to previous versions of the story of Ne Zha, in which the protagonist cannot escape his fatal destiny, the version of Jiaozi modified the story: The hero can choose to be a demon or a god. As Fu Haifang, General Manager of Zhejiang Star Lights Cinema Chain Co. Ltd., said, "Ne Zha's image in the film is subversive. His dark eyes and whims can remind adult viewers of their own children. Although adapted from a Chinese myth, the film deals with realistic subjects like the modern parent-child relationship. Thanks to this original interpretation, everyone can identify with the story."

The success of the film is not due to chance. According to Jiaozi, it took his team five years to produce this film, which involved 1,600 people and 70 different companies. The scenario has been adapted 66 times. He admitted that he encountered obstacles every day. It is therefore a bit early for him to talk about the rise of Chinese animation. "Today, no one talks more about the development of high-speed trains in China, because everyone already considers them as part of the daily landscape. One day in the future, when the Chinese animation industry is perceived in this way, we will be able to see a real rise of this industry in China," he concluded.

(Comments to lixiaoyu@chinafrica.cn)

Development of Chinese Animated Films

Chinese animation has a long history. As early as the 1920s, China saw the release of its first animated film. It witnessed a golden era in the aftermath of the establishment of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio in April 1957, with the release of a series of classic films, including Monkey King (1964) and Ne Zha's Triumph Over the Dragon King (1979). Chinese traditional elements were used in making these films, such as ink painting, Peking Opera and traditional Chinese music. A Chinese school has thus taken shape in the world of animation.

However, Chinese animation industry has been sailing in troubled waters since the 1980s, after the introduction of a number of Japanese and American films. The lack of creativity in the adaptation of scenarios, and the lack of professionals, capital and techniques are all constraints that have hindered its development for a long time. It had to wait until 2010 to be reborn with the release of Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf and Boonie Bears. If the former is made for children, the latter is targeted at the viewers of all ages.

The year 2015 saw the release of the first successful Chinese adult animated film, Monkey King: Hero Is Back, with more than 950 million yuan ($134.6 million) in revenue. The appearance of this film is considered the beginning of the rise of Chinese animation industry. Since then, a dozen animated films have appeared on the big screens, without being great successes. So, the success of Ne Zha in 2019 has revived hopes for a bright future of Chinese animation industry.

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