Friday, August 30, 2019


It's been a weird summer at the Chinese box office, as the new certification board has proven much more strict and capricious, with release dates yanked at the last moment and all sorts of other chaos. Still, $630M in ticket sales doesn't happen just because other options disappeared, especially when you consider that one of the things yanked was an animated film whose producers felt couldn't compete with ten others out there. This thing is a legitimate hit, although that means it might do $100K in the United States, mostly from audiences like the one last night where I was probably the only person who needed subtitles in a fairly packed house.

But that's the audience Well Go seemed to be settling for; the announcement that they had acquired and would release the film came just a week or two ago, not enough time to launch a marketing campaign to English-speaking families if they wanted to get it on Imax screens during the window when theaters will consider something a bit unusual, if only because it beats cheap "greatest hits" shows.

I'm a little more curious than usual to see what actual kids and parents make of this movie for them, and from the other side I'd like to know whether ADHD and autism spectrum diagnoses are given enough credence in China for the metaphor I see for that to be more than me just looking too hard. While I've got no doubt that most of its box office comes from it being a funny fantasy adventure with production values not far enough from the A-list American movies to feel like a huge step down, there may be a dozen of those every year now in China, but this one speaks to audiences in a different way without making a big show of it.

Nezha zhi motong jiangshi (NeZha)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 29 August 2019 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

If I were a ten-year-old Chinese kid, there's a good chance I'd be absolutely nuts for this movie, as seems to have happened back in its native land, where it was the biggest home-grown movie of the summer. It's got a lot of the ingredients to transcend many cultural barriers - big action, monsters, and wacky comedy - and is within shouting distance of top-tier animation, something imports from China haven't always achieved. It's busy and frantic, but kids often go for that.

Will they go for the convoluted backstory that starts this movie if they don't find it until after its theatrical run? That tells the story of a group of Immortals dealing with a Chaos Crystal which has absorbed the power of the sun and moon and even a demon. It is captured and separated into a "Spirit Crystal" and a "Demon Pill", with rotund wizard Taiyi Zhenren (voice of Zhang Jiaming) told to let the Spirit Crystal incarnate in the child of Chentang Pass Chamberlain Li Jing (voice of Chen Hao) and Lady Yin Furen (voice of Lü Qi). His envious peer Sheng Gongbao (voice of Yang Wei) switches the Spirit Crystal and Demon Pill at the last minute, bringing the Crystal to the Dragon King to infuse into an egg while Li and Yin find themselves with an immensely powerful son possessed not of noble spirit but a tendency toward destructive mischief - and a Heavenly curse will cause a lightning bolt will strike and destroy the Demon Pill in three years.

That's a ton of stuff happening before Nezha (voice of Lü Yanting) is even born, and it's probably best not to concern oneself too much with the whole deal where Nezha and Ao Bing (voice of Han Mo), the dragon's human-looking son, mature to tween-dom more or less instantaneously (I wouldn't be shocked if the eventual English dub increased it to ten years despite three being part of the legend), with Sheng and the dragons mostly preparing Ao Bing for his part in their master plan off screen while Taiyi and Nezha's parents both beg the immortals for a reprieve and try to teach the boy magic and demon-hunting for discipline and so that the town will see him as useful rather than evil. The great strength of this main section is the approach writer/director "Jiaozi" Yang Yu takes with Nezha and his parents - there's never any reluctance to love or tendency toward a "switched-at-birth" angle, just a kid whose body chemistry makes self-control extremely difficult and parents who don't have the right knowledge to deal with it. It's easy to sympathize with both Nezha and his family simultaneously, in large part due to strong melding of character design and voice work: For all that Nezha's face distorts and Lü Yanting's voice work gets broad, he never seems quite malevolent, while Lü Qi and Lady Yin's animators always get across her need to do something to help the situation at every moment, while Chen Hao injects hints of paternal worry into a father who is often outwardly stoic.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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