Last year when I reviewed Big Fish & Begonia, I wrote about how China is playing catch-up with the rest of the Far East when it comes to animated films. Ne Zha, which opens at AMC Grapevine Mills this week, is another step forward. This is not because of the unsophisticated computer-generated look of the film, but rather because of its sense of humor, which manages the difficult trick of being distinctively Chinese while still being accessible to Western kids and their parents. Ne Zha has already out-earned The Lion King in its native country, and I think it’s the better film.
The film begins in feudal China with a military commander and his wife (voiced by Chen Hao and Lü Qi) expecting a baby who’s destined to absorb a magic pearl and become the protector of his city. Unfortunately, the immortal wise man Taiyi (voiced by Zhang Jiaming), who’s meant to be the boy’s teacher, gets drunk while guarding the pearl and allows his evil brother and rival sorcerer (voiced by Yang Wei) to curse the child. The baby, named Ne Zha (voiced by Lü Yanting), emerges as a demon child who, at the age of 1, is already walking, talking back to his parents, stealing stuff, setting portions of the city on fire, and earning his status as a pariah among the townsfolk. That is, until the boy’s parents and Taiyi lie to him about his identity — worryingly, not for the last time — and tell him that his magical powers are for protecting people from demons. When the kid discovers the truth, the blowback will be fierce.
This belongs to a tradition of Chinese comedy that treats ancient legends with modern irreverence and subversive humor. Stephen Chow’s films (especially Journey to the West) are a side-splitting example of this in live-action, but I’ve never seen it pulled off so successfully in animation. At one point, Ne Zha realistically fakes his own death by drowning as a malicious joke on Taiyi, and it’s hard to imagine a Hollywood animated movie for kids going to such a dark place. On a lighter note, Taiyi is a marvelous character, a buffoonish fat guy who thinks he’s the handsomest man in the world, rides into battle on a flying pig, and tries to deal with a fearsome chaos demon by calling it like it’s a housepet. At one point, Ne Zha battles a water demon whose saliva turns people to stone and forces him to give up the antidote, which is gleefully disgusting. The best comic set piece is when a group of bullies who’ve been beaten up by Ne Zha plot their revenge, and one of their number details a series of Rube Goldberg traps involving falling knives, a rockslide, poisonous snakes, and a hornet’s nest. It almost works as planned.
The story comes to a head over Ne Zha’s friendship with Ao Bing (voiced by Han Mo), the son of a dragon king who also has magic powers, neither of them knowing that he absorbed the magic pearl that was meant for Ne Zha. This culminates in a dizzying four-way fight between the two, Taiyi, and his brother over an enchanted paintbrush that allows people to escape into the landscapes depicted in paintings. First-time writer-director Jiaozi doesn’t do so well at investing emotional resonance into this climactic battle that is like so many from Japanese anime, but there is something in Ne Zha’s insistence that when fate is against you, you should fight it with everything you have. If China does become as big a force in animation as Japan has been for decades, this film will go down as a benchmark. Even if it doesn’t, Ne Zha is strange and funny enough to recommend on its own.
Voices by Lü Yanting and Han Mo. Written and directed by Jiaozi. Not rated.