The map scene has already caused the film to be banned in Vietnam. The Philippines’ foreign minister, Teodoro Locsin, called this week for “Abominable” to be boycotted, but his words fell short of action.
The film is due to be released in Malaysia on Nov. 7. “The animated film titled ‘Abominable’ has been given approval for screening in Malaysia under the condition that the controversial map is removed from the film,” said Mohamad Zamberi Abdul Aziz, chairman of Malaysia’s censorship board, also known as the Lembaga Penapis Filem or LPF.
The map in the animated film depicts the so-called “nine-dash line,” a U-shaped boundary unilaterally declared by Beijing that carves out resource-rich maritime regions for itself. Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia all make contesting and overlapping claims.
The film is a Sino-U.S. co-production between Comcast-owned DreamWorks Animation and Shanghai-based Pearl Studio. Pearl is now a fully Chinese-owned rebrand of the former Oriental DreamWorks joint venture, which was founded with great fanfare in 2012 as a landmark collaboration between Hollywood and China.
In July 2016, an independent arbitration tribunal established under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) published a clear and binding ruling that the nine-dash line claims were mostly incompatible with UNCLOS. It explained that building artificial islands in the sea does not give China territorial claims in the area. China’s response was to call the ruling “a waste of paper.”
“Abominable” has performed well in North America but poorly in China. On release in the U.S. since Sept. 27, “Abominable” has grossed $49.7 million. It was released in China on Oct. 1, China’s National Day. But its patriotic Chinese elements have failed to win over Middle Kingdom audiences, which have never ranked the film higher than third in the box office charts. Its China total to date is $14.6 million.
The map controversy comes at a time when China’s economic and political rise is causing increasing friction with parts of Asia and the West, and at a time when the world is watching to see how China handles the increasingly violent civic unrest in Hong Kong.
In recent months, Chinese authorities have forced hotels and airline companies to backpedal on geographic details on their websites and publicity materials. Chinese citizens have been mobilized to boycott the Coach, Givenchy and Versace luxury goods brands for mislabeling Hong Kong as a separate country. Coach and Givenchy also listed Taiwan as a separate nation.
Last week, ESPN also faced criticism for using a map that appeared to endorse China’s claims to both Taiwan and the same disputed South China Sea regions. China has never disavowed the possibility of using force to bring Taiwan to heel, viewing the self-governed and democratic island as a renegade province.