How time flies. Summer vacation is approaching.
I still remember when the dark horse animated feature Ne Zha singlehandedly created the market for summer movies. With a stunning box office take of up to 5 billion yuan, Ne Zha has become the second highest-grossing film of all time in the Chinese mainland, lifting up the morale of domestic animators.
But this year, China's cinemas have been shuttered for nearly five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although there are no new releases, new films are still being produced. A few days ago, a new movie about Ne Zha, who varies looks in different works but has been deemed as the most popular character in the so-called "Fengshen universe", has stirred enthusiasm among fans.
France's Annecy International Animation Film Festival, the equivalent to the Oscars in animation circles, released a three-minute clip of the new animated film New Gods: Nezha Reborn.
But the titular character is quite a surprise.
In all previous adaptations — whether film, TV drama or animated series — Ne Zha, also known as Nezha, is a person who later transforms into a celestial being. But in the new film, Nezha is sort of like a spirit who merges with Li Yunxiang, an ordinary young man. When Li is caught in danger and forced to use his powers, Nezha's spirit — who is depicted with three heads and six arms while riding on two fire-burning wheels — appears on his back.
The new film is not a sequel to Ne Zha. Actually, the films are produced by two different studios. According to available reports, Nezha Reborn started preparation work in 2016, so it's clear the new story produced by Light Chaser Animation Studio was conceived independent of the runaway hit.
Light Chaser's last animated film was White Snake, inspired by the ancient folklore tale The Legend of the White Snake. The original story is of a snake that transforms into a beautiful woman who marries a handsome young man, but their love tragically stirs a disaster that threatens many lives, who are trapped in the floods in Jinshan Temple. But the film, set 500 years earlier than when the original story takes place, uses little of the original tale.
Somewhat exemplifying the studio's continuous interest in such a narrative style, Nezha Reborn is set 3,000 years after Nezha's original story takes place in the ancient novel The Investiture of the Gods, which is set on the eve of the collapse of the Shang Dynasty.
In the trailer, audiences can see Nezha's new "incarnation" in a cyberpunk-style modern city with his short-haired girlfriend, who looks a bit like Alita, the hero of James Cameron's Alita: Battle Angel (I guessed the two characters' relationship from the trailer).
A bit like Batman, Li faces off against evil forces alone to guard the order and peace of the city. The scenes are reminiscent of America's superhero tales.
Unfortunately, most netizens are not satisfied with the new film.
From Little Door Gods to Tea Pets to Cats and Peachtopia and White Snake, I believe Light Chaser is an ambitious studio which excels in animation technique, but it has yet to hit the mark in storytelling.
The studio's distinctive style is formed through Chinese culture and mythology, and instilling Chinese aesthetics into stories. So I feel a bit sad that its new film is making such a wild turn and using more elements from Western culture. But I might be wrong as I have yet to see the entire feature.
For generations of Chinese, Ne Zha and his legend has been etched in their minds over centuries.
But Ne Zha's image has also evolved. In the original Ming Dynasty novel The Investiture of the Gods, Ne Zha is not perfect, and is even a violent and naughty child.
The 1979 classic animated feature Prince Nezha's Triumph Against Dragon King turned Ne Zha into an adorable hero.
Ne Zha, the 2019 smash hit, re-examines the title character with modern values, making him more relatable to today's viewers. "My life is not controlled by the heaven, but in my hands", the film's most famous quote, has resonated with many young viewers who wish to pursue their dreams.
With the animated film Legend of Deification and director Wuershan's Fengshen Trilogy, the Fengshen stories — both adapted from Fengshen or The Investiture of the Gods — will be the most likely Chinese counterpart to the US superhero cinematic universe. But how should such a franchise be made to hook both Chinese and Western audiences?
A hero who is depicted to have conquered the raging sea in myths, Ne Zha is seemingly now shouldering a heavier responsibility.