Over the summer, “Ne Zha,” the first 3D Chinese-produced animated feature released in Imax theaters, did something no one expected. It has grossed $700 million and instantly signaled the arrival of Chinese animation as an international creative force.
The blockbuster is part of the lineup of the Animation Is Film Festival, which runs Oct. 18-20 and features many Asian toon features that are making waves at global films festivals and the local box office. “Ne Zha” is also China’s entry in the international film Oscar race, a prestigious and rare designation for an animated movie.
“Ne Zha” follows a mythological hero who is destined by prophecy to bring destruction to the world, but fights against his destiny. Through a translator, Yi Qiao, the producer of the film and CEO of animation shingle Coloroom, will participate in a Q&A after the film’s screening on Oct. 20.
Yi says he believes the movie’s success came together for many reasons: “The Chinese film industry is getting more and more mature. Chinese domestic and Hollywood live action movies can sell over 100 million tickets, the size of movie audiences is expanding. But animation audience growth was behind compared to live action. ‘Ne Zha’ came out at the right time. In the past, domestic animation targeted younger audiences. Coloroom has been working toward a more adult-targeted audience group for the past five years. We gained a lot of young adult and adult fans by getting rid of the stereotypical impression that animation is only for children, and this group has started to embrace domestic animation.
‘Ne Zha’ is the combination of the successful experience of both in children’s animation and adult-targeted animation. It is welcomed by every age group, and we sold more than 140 million tickets. This success marks the beginning of the Chinese family animation industry.”
For Eric Beckman of U.S. distributor GKids, the movie represents decades of development and investment in the Chinese animation industry. Still, it’s unclear whether this will mean “Ne Zha” and the Chinese animated films that are made in the wake of its enormous box office numbers will have similar success in U.S. markets. In a limited run of 66 Imax theaters on its first weekend, the film grossed $1.19 million.
“I believe right now most of the people who’ve seen ‘Ne Zha’ in the U.S. are audiences who have a connection to China or are fans of animation or speak Chinese,” says Beckman. “But people are going to look at these numbers and I think there’s going to be a lot of investment in Chinese animation in the future, even though when you make a movie in China that movie has to pass the censors and you don’t find out your release date until a few weeks before it happens, which really changes a release strategy.”
Yi emphasizes that certain themes and ideas tend to travel well, regardless of language or mythology and that animation is also a kind of international language.
“Even though Western audiences are not familiar with the mythology, I think the theme can resonate with them. ‘Ne Zha’ has universal story structure, comedy, emotions and character design that everyone can understand. The theme of ‘Ne Zha’ is to break the bias and limits that the world puts on you, you don’t have to follow your fate, you can be your own hero and be a better self. This was actually the start of ‘Ne Zha,’ the shared struggle the director and I had, ‘why do we love and make animation? Will audiences even like it?’ The whole world didn’t believe in us at that time, but we believed in ourselves. I think as creators, struggle is the most important thing.”