The best kind of cinematic underdog stories are the ones that go beyond the borders of a cinema screen. A debut feature for its director Jiaozi and his animation studio Chengdu Coco Cartoon, with nary a name-brand actor in sight, Ne Zha has already become one of the biggest commercial successes for a China-born animated film.
Of course, in the era of Avatar and Disney-helmed tentpoles, monetary gains can only push a feature so far. Good thing, then, that this is the kind of production that outright demands that kind of audience pull.
For an East Asian product, the visuals are all kinds of American influenced. It has the round bounciness of Dreamworks (and, let’s be honest, the same sophomoric sense of humour in places), the lighting effects and facial expressions of Disney/Pixar, and the energetic finesse of Laika.
However, rather than feeling like a hodge-podge of familiar elements in a cynical attempt at international notoriety, all of these elements come together astoundingly well.
Everything from the quieter moments of the titular Ne zha kicking around a jianzi, to the action scenes that make Kung Fu Panda look like a test run, are rendered in stylised but highly effective fashion, making every second feel like a glorious panorama unto itself.
As for the story, it taps into regional shenmo storytelling (basically stories to do with gods and demons fighting each other) to tell the tale of Ne Zha, a child born from a demonic seed that is doomed to die at three years old from a divine lightning blast. Wielding mischievous child for all its worth, Lü Yanting imbues the title character with vibrant energy, while also selling the more emotional moments with uncanny poignancy.
And opposite him, we have Han Mao as the dragon prince Ao Bing, whose destiny is tied directly to Ne Zha, leading them both on a path that could see their world and themselves destroyed. It’s quite impressive that, even with very little dialogue, the animation is just that damn good that Ao Bing makes for the most emotionally intense character in this entire affair.
In-between the fight scenes, the jaw-dropping visuals, the familial drama and the occasional spurt of potty humour, it is at its heart a story about fate in a world where mortals rub shoulders with beings of ultimate power. It follows a similar line of thought as Eli Craig’s Little Evil in how it examines the notion of a demonic child meant to be the end of everything, and asks a simple question: Says who? It breaks down the idea of predetermined fate and turns its own cheekiness into a showing of strength and heaven-shaking defiance.
Through the use of familiar ideas and narrative tropes, both foreign and domestic, Ne Zha spins a yarn about prejudice – the mountains it creates and the sheer personal power that can shift them into the sea. And with how far Jiaozi came to create this, it’s hard not to think that he’s shattered a few mountains for himself.