The tale of a young folk deity who flies around on wheels of fire has defied audience and industry expectations about the commercial potential of animation in China to become the country’s second-highest-grossing film of all time. “Nezha” has earned $674 million (RMB 4.81 billion) since its July 26 release, putting it behind only 2017’s nationalist actioner “Wolf Warrior II” at the box office and making it the most successful animated title ever in the Middle Kingdom, far beyond the previous record-holder, Disney’s “Zootopia,” which reaped $236 million.
Its astonishing success has raised hopes for China’s growing but still immature animation sector. While animated titles consistently account for 10% to 15% of the box office in the U.S. and about 40% in Japan, the figure is estimated at only about 6% to 10% in China. “Nezha” has also set a welcome new standard for quality in local animation in a land where the genre is still primarily seen as a diversion for children rather than entertainment for more grown-up viewers.
But whether “Nezha” is truly the harbinger of a new wave of hits, or whether it will wind up a lonely one-hit wonder, remains to be seen.
Critic Yu Yaqin attributes the film’s success primarily to timing. “Nezha,” which comes from prominent Chinese production company Enlight Media, hit during kids’ summer vacation in a field devoid of competitors. Its quality also tapped into a growing sense of national pride among China’s consumer class. “There are more than just good production values behind this record-breaking Chinese animation,” state-run news agency Xinhua trumpeted. “There’s also a strong belief in traditional Chinese culture and its form of creative expression.”
Nezha, who at times appears alongside the better-known folk deity the Monkey King, is well known to local viewers, thanks to a bevy of films, TV shows and pop culture appropriations. The 1979 animated film “Nezha Conquers the Dragon King,” which screened out of competition at Cannes, first popularized the character.
That movie drew first-time director Jiaozi to the new film, but his take on the deity serves up a young fighter who sports eyeliner and an emo flair. In another update in step with China’s current political moment, there are no real villains, and Nezha’s relationship with his parents is not as rocky.
“In the earlier film, he’s a rebel, particularly against his father, but this sort of image is not suitable to the market right now,” said critic Yu.
The film was a labor of love for Jiaozi, whose real name is Yang Yu. (“Jiaozi” means “dumpling” in Chinese.) He went through medical school in Sichuan but started dabbling in 3D animation after graduation. It took him nearly four years of living like a hermit at home with his mother to put out his first 16-minute short, which went on to win accolades, including at the Berlin Short Film Festival.
For his first full-length feature, he wrote 66 versions of the script over the course of two years, and supervised more than 100 redesigns of Nezha’s look. Around 80% of the shots involve special effects, and at least 60 companies and 1,600 people were involved in the five-year production.
“We had to grope our way forward the whole time,” Jiaozi told a Chinese news outlet. “Throughout the process, we were constantly finding parts that we couldn’t finish and needing to bring on more companies. And then those companies themselves weren’t suited to doing certain things, and so would subcontract the work out even further. … Pretty much every animation company in the country was tapped.”
Considering the high levels of money and time needed to turn out a good animated film, many fear “Nezha” may be a one-off success story. Investment in Chinese animation saw a boom after 2015’s summer blockbuster “Monkey King: Hero Is Back,” which grossed $134 million, but that wave of interest died down.
As it turns out, industry observers won’t have long to wait for the next test of China’s appetite for homegrown animation. “Abominable,” a yeti adventure story, is set to hit Chinese theaters Oct. 1, during the National Day holiday period. (It comes out in the U.S. on Sept. 27.) The movie is the first release since 2016 from the company formerly known as Oriental DreamWorks, the ambitious joint venture between DreamWorks Animation and China Media Capital. It’s now known as Pearl Studios and is fully funded by CMC.
“Abominable,” which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, tells the tale of a girl who tries to reunite a yeti with its family atop Mount Everest. Scaling such a height poses a daunting, but not impossible, challenge — just like reaching the rarefied level of “Nezha.”