Animated Dreams
Ne Zha, a surprising domestic summer sensation, sets a box office record in China
By Sherry Qin  ·  2019-09-09  ·   Source:

A poster of Ne Zha (FILE)

"Every time I see a good comic or animation, I get excited for days, not merely for my appreciation for the work, but for my hopes for the entire Chinese animation and comics industries," Lin Ji, a cartoonist widely known as Guosite, with over 16 million followers on Chinese social media platform Weibo, wrote after watching the latest Chinese animated hit film, Ne Zha.

Since its release on July 26, Ne Zha has broken the single-day record for an animated film in China with 200 million yuan ($28.6 million) and five days after its debut, the movie's box office revenue exceeded 1 billion yuan ($141.8 million), topping the box office chart, according to the Maoyan online ticketing service. Its box office had hit 2.3 billion yuan ($328.6 million) as of August 5, and already surpassed Hollywood animated movies in China, including Zootopia ($217.2 million), Coco ($171.8 million) and Despicable Me ($147.7 million). Rated 8.7 on Douban, a website which provides user reviews and recommendations, the film has become the highest rated movie of the summer.

Ne Zha, the protagonist of the film, sporting two buns and dark circles around his eyes, has gone viral on China's social media. Ne Zha cosplays, fan art and fan fiction flooded Weibo in the 10 days after its release.

The Ne Zha fever seems to be ushering in the dawn of the long-clouded Chinese animation industry. Many fans and industry insiders are calling for "the rise of Chinese comics once again."

Ancient folk legend retold

Ne Zha tells the story of the birth and coming of age of the mythical figure by the same name, who is a rebellious deity born to human parents and seen as a devil in his hometown. Adapted from one of the most renowned Chinese novels, Investiture of the Gods, the character is no stranger to Chinese audiences. In fact, there have been 18 different adaptions of TV series and animations featuring Ne Zha since 1979.

But the director of the film Yang Yu tailored his Ne Zha to today's cultural context to resonate with today's audiences. To fight against his hometown's preconceptions, Ne Zha, a violent and defiant figure in previous versions, becomes an antihero who vows to take his life in his own hands and not submit to his so-called destiny.

Yang, widely known by his nickname Jiaozi (dumpling), was a medical graduate before turning to animation. After the success of his solely-made animated short film See Through, he strove to produce an animated film in the Chinese style. Yang chose Ne Zha as his first project on the big screen because of the folk legend's prevalence with audiences in China and the room it allowed him to shape the character to modern tastes.

"It's a folk legend told in a contemporary way. Many lines spoken by the characters are adapted from the latest and hottest memes," wrote a viewer on Douban. "But it also raises discussion about current topics, such as pedagogy, self-identity and family relationships."

Ne Zha is not the first animated film in recent years to spark hope for the rise of the domestic animation industry and a revival of China's comics industry. Monkey King: Hero Is Back (2015) and Big Fish & Begonia (2016) both provoked wide discussions on social media after they were released. Yet most viewers were attracted to their splendid visual effects and their unique styles, diverging from Hollywood and Japanese animation.

"It is no longer a pileup of meaningless Chinese icons. This movie builds a world in which solid and empathic characters have their worldviews and characteristics," one person commented on Douban.

Kids dress like Ne Zha at a parade during the 15th China International Cartoon & Animation Festival
on May 4 in Hangzhou, east China's Zhejiang Province(XINHUA)

Breaking stereotypes

"It was not easy to make Ne Zha. Chinese audiences used to think that comic books and animations were only for kids. We wanted to break that stereotype, just as Ne Zha battles people's biases," said Yang at the premiere of the movie in Beijing on July 23.

It took Yang five years and a total of 66 versions to bring the story to the big screen in his efforts to make it entertaining for both children and adults. Out of over 30 different potential images of Ne Zha, Yang eventually picked the panda-eyed and slouchy boy as his lead character to challenge people's impressions of the familiar figure.

Along with abandoning their bias against comics and animation, Chinese audiences also need time to cultivate the habit of enjoying them. Lin, born in the 1980s, reflected on her journey from a comic enthusiast to a full-time cartoonist. When she was little, comic books were absolutely banned by her parents; she had to read them at night after the lights were turned off. Ten years later, when she became a cartoonist, many of her readers were introduced to her work by their parents. "I realized the environment has changed, comics and animation are being gradually accepted by Chinese society," Lin said.

The future

Despite the optimism of audiences and industry professionals, Yang and investors feel bittersweet about the sweeping acclaim Ne Zha is garnering.

"In the process of making Ne Zha, I saw the lack of a mature industrial system behind the production of animated films in China," Yang said. It took 1,600 staff members from 20 production companies to create the visual effects, yet each company had different standards on the character rendering and modeling process, which posed a challenge for the director.

One of the major production companies behind Ne Zha is Coloroom Pictures, a sub-company dedicated to animated films under Enlight Media, one of China's leading private film companies. Wang Changtian, President of Enlight Media, announced the giant's new animated ambitions and the founding of Coloroom in Beijing in 2015 after the major splash made by Monkey King: Hero Is Back. Yet it took Coloroom another four years to produce its next animated hit film.

Compared to live action films, animated movies offer the highest risk-reward ratio in the movie business, but slow return on investment and an immature market in China make producers hesitant to venture down the animation road.

In 2017, a total of 12 domestic animated films grossed only 930 million yuan ($131.9 million), trailing far behind Ne Zha's five-day box office revenue.

"We will make plans for the next Ne Zha film if investors can recoup their costs," said Yang, revealing the relentless reality of the industry. So far, it appears Enlight Media and Coloroom Pictures are the biggest winners this summer.

Ne Zha is an experiment for Yang and Coloroom to test the market and pave the way to construct an industrial system for animated film production. Yang and Coloroom are planning to work on a trilogy of Ne Zha and further build a series based on Investiture of the Gods, a vernacular novel much like the Marvel comics universe with many characters and heroes of which Ne Zha is only one.

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