Ne Zha (China, 2019)

Ne Zha has been one of the surprise box office hits of 2019. A computer-animated feature by first-time director Yang Yu (aka Jiaozi), it has broken box office records in its own country and even managed to break into cinemas internationally.

It begins with a Chaos Pearl being split into two halves by the powerful Tianzun; one a Spirit Pearl and the other a dangerous Demon Orb. The immortal Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) is dispatched to place the Spirit Pearl inside the newborn Ne Zha (Lu Yanting), however his rival Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei) swaps it with the Demon Orb. This not only transforms the baby Ne Zha into a demon but condems him to death in three years from Tianzun’s lightning curse.

This tale gains an enormous level appeal by enthusiastically delving into Chinese classical literature, particularly the 16th century novel Investiture of the Gods, attributed to Xu Zhonglin. The book fits comfortably in the same ‘gods-and-demons’ genre as the somewhat more famous Journey to the West, and thus has a rich background of fantasy and martial arts in which to base a story. Ne Zha feels deeply Chinese, and that is to the film’s benefit.

Sadly, the film never quite finds a unified style of character design. As if often the case with recent Chinese animation, design is a hodgepodge of foreign influences. With Ne Zha there is a character lifted from Pixar here, an aesthetic from DreamWorks there. Meanwhile, the character of Ao Bing (Han Mo), who is alternately Ne Zha’s friend and foe, looks as if he’s stepped out of a Dragon Ball cartoon (that Japanese series itself seeming to be a major design influence). This ongoing issue with high-budget Chinese animation continues to hold the industry back: without its own strong visual identity it will never carve out an audience beyond a domestic one.

Within the context of its borrowed aesthetics, however, Ne Zha is beautifully rendered. It particularly boasts a strong, rich sense of colour. Its cinematography regular pops with thoughtfully composed shots and moments, jumping out at the viewer to emphasise moments of action, drama, or simple serenity. Some key moments simply pause the action and the audience have a welcome moment of rest.

One of the film’s best sequences involves a magical training ground hidden inside a painting. This environment takes on a surreal painterly aesthetic, with the landscape and detail easily changed with the flick of an enchanted paintbrush. The visuals in these scenes are marvellous, playing not only with light and colour but gravity as well: lawns, hills, rivers and mountains all twist and undulate in dizzying fashions. Not only is it by far the film’s most inventive sequence, but it also provides an emotional lift at a point where the audience’s attention may be flagging.

Tonally and structurally Ne Zha is quite choppy and uneven, jumping from high drama to fast action, or from action to broad scatological humour. It gives children plenty of variety, but for older viewers may seem a little haphazard and weak. The film’s climax is interminable, running for an excess duration and packed with constant ludicrous elevations of scale and impact.

Despite its international exposure, Ne Zha is firmly aimed at a domestic audience. Its sub-titled status in cinemas will turn away non-Chinese-speaking children and their parents, while it is a little too immature to fully appeal to adults. It also makes a few too many assumptions about how much its audience is aware of the original story. Once again, domestic audiences have embraced it, while foreign viewers may struggle.

China is certainly making fast and inspiring developments in its animation industry, and Ne Zha, while imperfect, is clear evidence of that growth. It is not a major achievement in the genre – other than in the commercial sense – but it is a bold and promising step along the road.