I don’t have extremely high expectations from animated children/family films. Even the titans of American animation, Pixar, have been hit-or miss in recent years, often making films that feel more designed for success than creative risks (which was not always the case). Add to that my growing impatience with the manner in which Chinese cinema has been dumbed down in the past decade, while the industry has steadily been rewarded for this behavior in the same manner as Hollywood has with their endless stream of brainless sequels and reboots (and the fact that I used their nonsense word rather than ‘remake’ shows the influence of their idiocy), and you will understand why I feel hesitant to praise the mild artistic success of Ne Zha. While it is certainly admirable that China has entered into the world of internationally viewed animated films, the result feels more like something I would have expected from a children’s TV network than a narrative I felt obliged to see in theaters. Like much of the entertainment fed to younger audiences these days, the message feels obvious and the execution unimpressive.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about the sloppy implementation of both story and animation for this film is the fact that it was built upon a rather solid premise. The film makes use of a longstanding film tradition in Chinese cinema, and it is one that fits perfectly within the format of animation. The film narrative clearly belongs within the ‘wuxia shenguai’ genre, which are period martial arts movies that also contain an element of fantasy. Often these include gods and mysterious creatures (shenguai, or shén guài, literally translates to monster or spirit), within the superhero like martial arts action that is often accomplished with wire-work and CGI. In recent years, there have been onslaughts of these films in live action, which are often paired with inconsistent visual effects. Moving this genre to animation seemed a natural decision, but it did little to add depth or nuance to a genre that has been as bogged down by shoddy spectacle as the American superhero film.
The film itself is based on a classic Chinese folk legend, as many of the wuxia shenguai films are, so it may have that added element of familiarity in the country of origin. Because of this, the film opens with a lot of information that western audiences may find confusing. There are two beads, each representing contrasting sides of power (yin and yang of spiritual Gods, if you will). The spirit bead is meant to go into the son of the king, but instead he is given the demon bead, making thee prince something of a demon child. As Ne Zha grows up and realizes what he is, the young boy needs to make the decision what he will do with the power he is born with.
Meanwhile, the possessor of the actual spirit bead resides in hell with dragons (?), and is being used in a plot to take down the human realm and Ne Zha’s father’s kingdom. The film quickly becomes a parable for taking control of the path of your own life, even if born with some unsavory personality traits. Ne Zha needs to learn to control his power, especially when he is unfairly judged by the villagers of the kingdom, who all simply see him as a demon. After a while, Ne Zha begins to believe this himself, and embraces his own destructive nature. It takes the purpose of having an enemy to fight, and people he cares about to protect, that Ne Zha is able to become something greater than what is expected of him.
There is a good message in the narrative, but it is pretty obvious by the end of the first act. The remainder of the film is mostly dedicated to odd and annoying side characters, sophomoric humor that often resorts to fart jokes, and a ton of spectacle-filled action that is less than impressive. Despite being the first Chinese animated film to make international waves, this film is a far cry from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It feels a lot closer to “Dragon Ball Z.”
The animation provides no real competition to studios like Pixar, who were able to elevate this type of action with The Incredibles. It isn’t just the rudimentary animation or character design, although that certainly doesn’t help, but also a screenplay that feels designed for a younger audience. There simply isn’t much for adults to latch onto, especially without cultural knowledge of the narrative. Apparently it was successful enough to warrant a sequel, though the release has been delayed with the recent outbreak occurring around the world. Honestly, I am in no rush to see a continuation of the story, at least in this form. Even the high definition Blu-ray presentation can’t make the animation impressive enough to look past the dumbed down narrative. There are also no worthwhile special features to be found on the disc, though the film does come on both DVD and Blu-ray in the release.
Entertainment Value: 4.5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 5/10
Historical Significance: 6/10
Special Features: 2/10