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It’s been wild to see what the rest of the world has been doing in animation. There is always something happening, some kind of film that’s going to push the boundaries for that country’s animation status quota, and that’s no different from China. This year alone, the US is getting two Chinese CGI features with GKids bringing over White Snake, and Well Go USA Entertainment bringing over the biggest Chinese animated feature right now, Ne Zha. Directed by Jiaozi, as of writing this review, Ne Zha is currently the highest-grossing Chinese-animated feature in the world, and the highest-grossing animated feature in China that isn’t made by the likes of Disney, Pixar and you get the idea. Calling this a hit is an understatement. It’s a monster, but, what did I think about it? Well, let’s find out!
The story revolves around a young boy named Nezha, voiced by Lu Yanting. He is a young boy who was born with the power of a Demon Pill, the one half of a Chaos Pearl that threatened to destroy the world but was split into two different pieces long ago. For now, though, Nezha lives a complicated life of being feared by the townsfolk for being a supposed demon, his family won't tell him what's going on, he encounters a new mysterious friend, and now has to deal with a potential new threat, and his ultimate fate in life. Can Nezha overcome adversity to avoid his fate?
Ne Zha is a lot more mature in how it tells its story than most animated films. It's not that it has no humor or comedic characters/moments, but for the most part, it does focus on the drama and the chemistry between Nezha and the different people he encounters. It has its moments where you, as an audience member can sit back and take in the volatile state of mind Nezha is in. He feels unloved despite both parents loving him. He is told he should become a slayer of monsters and demons, but would that change how people see him? The film is filled with themes of discrimination and most importantly, the idea of fate. It's another film that tackles how, while you think you already have a predetermined fate, you are the only one that can take charge of your fate.
It also has a bit of The Boy and the Beast that is thrown into the mix with how Nezha and this mysterious friend of his have different living situations, and how they were treated while growing up. It's nice to see an animated feature from China feel more focused, and know where the story's strengths need to be. It doesn't have an overload of side characters, and the story isn't thrown into the background for the antics of all of the characters, it's a coming-of-age drama first and foremost. Well, a drama with some great action sequences.
Animation-wise, the CGI animation on display is probably the most impressive computer animation from China yet. The designs translate well into CGI, the movements are smooth, and there are no herky-jerky movement issues you see in cheaper CGI films from China. The textures look wonderful, and the film has a better understanding of character movement than previous CGI endeavors that I have seen from the country. It looks like an animated film you would expect to see in theaters.
It's not Pixar or Disney incredible, but this film shows that China is getting their serious business faces on to show that they can make it look good. Of course, being a film from China, the action sequences are well done. The camera isn't too close, it's not too dark to see anything, the camera isn't moving around like a kid with a heavy dose of sugar injected into his veins, and it feels epic. The action sequences remind me of how Dragon Ball Super: Broly choreographed their fights, as you follow closely to the characters as they trade blows. The visual spectacle alone in this movie will delight people looking forward to some action set pieces in their animation.
Ne Zha has so many admirable elements, that it's all the more frustrating, that it has a lot of the same flaws as most Chinese-animated features! The biggest problem with the film is the tone. It's not uncommon for animated films to sprinkle in humorous bits into more dramatic moments, but the film can't hold back on having jokes every few minutes during the more intense scenes. It feels like they don't ask themselves if the jokes they include add or subtract from the scene, and keep them in there anyway.
A couple of the jokes are fart and piss jokes, and, once again, are the worst jokes in the movie. It's agonizing because there are some great physical gags and funny dialogue bits. The humor detracts more than it adds, and I'm so annoyed by that. They are so close at getting a consistent vibe, and they fumble it. I think the problem might be, that a lot of the tone and jokes are what Chinese audiences love to see in films, and that's perfectly fine if they do, but if the filmmakers want to have more widespread love and support, then they need to know that no one likes kiddy gross-out humor.
Out of all of the Chinese features I have seen so far, which is very minor compared to the overall catalog, this is easily their best effort yet. It's more cohesive, more polished, and more enjoyable to watch than most of the animated films from that country. It might be going to physical and digital soon after its limited release, so if you can find a theater that is playing it, please go out and support it! (I saw it on an IMAX screen and in 3D!) If you want to support more original features, and want other companies to know that you want more variety in your animation, then please go see Ne Zha. For now, let's travel back to Japan, and, next time, review one of 2019's hidden gems with Okko's Inn.
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Rating: Go See It!