Either a cautionary tale on the dangers of being a curious kid or an innocent escapist fantasy, or both, “The Dreams of Jinsha” marks mainland China’s stride into bigtime animation. Neither as ambitious nor as impressive as early buzz indicated, this childhood adventure by director Chen Deming and screenwriters Su Xiaohong and Wang Fang cannily blends gentle beauty, spooky mysticism and violent (even apocalyptic) action. Pic could net young viewers during its Oscar-qualifying Stateside run, six months after a 300-screen local release.
Those who hoped the long-gestating “Jinsha” would be an alternative to Japan’s anime style will have to wait. Chen, like other mainland filmmakers working in hand-drawn animation, displays an affinity for the anime form, while dipping into mythical Chinese history for a bit of cultural specificity.
Raised in a loving Beijing household, young, rambunctious Xiao Long (voiced by Xu Gang) fixates on the local museum’s show, about the 3,000-year-old Jinsha kingdom, the way other boys obsess about dinosaurs. Although his father relates his own past adventure in a magical land (during a stint as a field anthropologist), Long isn’t able to make the connection until his dad’s gift of a beloved jade pendant (wrongly translated in subtitles as “tablet”) becomes the key that unlocks an icon in the museum’s Jinsha exhibit.
Zap! Long finds himself in a lush forest, where he’s soon guided to the imposing palace of the Jinsha king (Xie Tiantian) by pretty Princess Hua’er (Zhan Jia) and the general of the Jinsha army (Wang Xiaobing). The King and his wife consult the Minister (Hu Pingzhi), who recognizes that Long’s arrival echoes an ancient messianic prophecy.
While Long and Hua’er develop a light form of puppy love in paradise, the General talks himself into a paranoid lather with the Minister that the “miracle” is really a nightmare. “The Dreams of Jinsha” thus becomes a moral yarn on the uses and abuses of power, themes that this kid-oriented fable ably carries on its slim shoulders.
Smaller children may tremble at the conflagration unleashed by the General’s actions, and there’s no mistaking the film’s allusions to the mass destruction of past wars, from Nanking to Hiroshima. The contrast with the film’s lighter, goofier moments is fairly extreme, though nothing here matches the visual and imaginative audacity of anime’s crowning achievements.
Hand-drawn work leans toward an old-school style that predates the graphic-novel wave, in line with the film’s rather nostalgic tone. Animation fans will bathe in the warm and fuzzy glow of the technically classy project, though anime buffs, expecting innovations that never transpire, may be disappointed.