Let’s face it, animated features aren’t exactly China’s strongest suit but writer-director Jiaozi manages to prove otherwise with Ne Zha, which turns to be the biggest surprise hit of 2019 so far. Since its release in China back in mid-July, the movie broke records to become the country’s second-highest-grossing films of all time, even overtook Frant Gwo’s sci-fi blockbuster hit The Wandering Earth.
Based on Xu Zhonglin’s classic novel Investiture of the Gods, the movie follows the temperamental Ne Zha (voiced by Lu Yanting) who is actually a demon born to human parents (Chen Hao’s Li Jing and Lu Qi’s Madam Yin). Being a demonic child, Ne Zha is largely treated by the villagers as an outcast, even though his parents remain supportive by his side. As Ne Zha struggles to accept his own destiny, he soon finds himself facing an enemy in the form of Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei).
First things first, I didn’t place any expectation upon watching Ne Zha on the big screen. But to my surprise, Jiaozi does a great job in the technical department. The animation may have been far from Pixar-level quality but it was good enough on its own. In fact, it was both vibrant and colourful, with stunning action setpieces and the fluidity of the characters’ movements all deserved a mention here.
It also helps that Ne Zha is fast-paced, even though the movie tends to overstay its welcome — particularly during the lengthy third-act that it could have benefited with some trimming. As expected in a Chinese movie, there is plenty of obligatory juvenile humour, complete with fart jokes just to elicit some cheap laughs from the audiences. Still, there are worthwhile comedy golds somewhere in Ne Zha, namely the unexpected parody moment that made good use of Brad Fiedel’s signature synthesiser-heavy Terminator score.
Jiaozi’s screenplay is pretty much a mixed bag, relying heavily on expository dialogues to get his point across. While most of the emotional moments tend to lean on the melodramatic side, at least the movie manages to offset its shortcomings with better-than-expected voice acting performances led by Lu Yanting’s gamely playful role as Ne Zha.
Remember not to leave your seat as soon as the movie ends. Stick around for both mid-credits and post-credits scenes.