Ne Zha, China’s Taoist boy deity, has suddenly become a star of the big screen across the country. Within five days of the film’s opening, China’s biggest ever cartoon blockbuster was born, raking in over 1 billion yuan - which continues to grow.
Industry pundits believe the Ne Zha film is sure to take over Zootopia, which boasted a total box office of some 1.53 billion yuan, to be the best earning cartoon film in China, with an estimated total revenue to be over 3.4 billion yuan.
A feature cartoon film with a “re-invented” Ne Zha as the protagonist, it injects a new vitality into the domestic movie industry that has only offered a lackluster performance for some time, with slowing revenues and constant industry scandals hurting confidence in the country’s movie sector.
The thought-provoking content of Ne Zha gives it a unique edge. Using mythological character names long known in the Chinese folklore, the film actually tells a marvelous story about modern parenting in a Gen Z-friendly way that is full of quick-witted fun without the burden of moral preaching.
Whatever your expectations may be of Chinese legends and mythological creatures, stories of Chinese deities wielding supernatural powers are unlike their morally conflicted, often violent counterparts in Ancient Greece.
In traditional folklore, Ne Zha, the boy deity, committed suicide in a deliberately excruciating way. Using his own words, he did this to return his body and flesh back to his parents, an unbelievably cruel way to sever family bonds. This behavior is totally out of sync with our modern society and is one of the worst implications of failed parenting.
But the film makers have developed a clever and strong storyline that relates to the daily tensions and lives of the many melodramas that exist within a nuclear family, consisting of two parents and a child. On the doomed day of Ne Zha’s death, the adapted storyline journeys towards protecting the ultimate family values of love, understanding, giving shelter and protection, and ultimately, forgiveness.
The contemporary portrayal of Ne Zha is not distant or cold; instead, he’s a familiar Gen-Z kid in your family, having troubles with other children in the neighborhood, always trying to be cool in his usual indifferent and non-condescending way, slightly hiding a tenderness for love and a willingness to impress for others’ recognition.
Successful American cartoons all imbue love and fun. Zootopia is huge fun, but it’s also educational and relates to our daily lives. Now here comes Ne Zha, who is a Gen-Z kid that a contemporary audience in China can relate to.
Ne Zha follows in the footsteps of Monkey King: Hero Is Back in 2015, the previous highest grossing Chinese cartoon film with a total box office of 956 million yuan. Both films are fun, explore life’s many important themes and were huge commercial successes. It’s also encouraging to see five years later, the Ne Zha film is offering much better animation than Monkey King, reflecting the technological growth trajectory of the domestic industry.
It’s a pity China hasn’t produced enough great cartoons like Ne Zha and Monkey King. In the five years following the release of Monkey King, several feature cartoon films have tried, but not achieved as much of an impact.
Now Ne Zha has arrived, and filmmakers are hinting at some similar productions in quick succession. Given the demand and success, I hope Ne Zha-like productions will emerge more often in China, instead of being the rarity they are today.
The author is a Beijing-based consultant working on international development issues, covering public health, clean energy and poverty reduction.
The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not represent the views of China Daily and China Daily website.