Review: Ne Zha (2019)

Ne Zha is a film that captured my curiosity after seeing its performance at the worldwide box office. Like The Wandering Earth earlier this year, Ne Zha is a work of mainstream Chinese cinema that broke big enough in its own country to land within the top ten for the year so far. I have seen hundreds upon hundreds of foreign films, but I realize most of those fall into the art film category; it’s actually quite rare for me to engage with a film actually made specifically with the mainstream audience of another culture in mind.

The story itself is based upon Chinese mythology, the tale of a young boy who should have been born of a heavenly pearl but is instead imbued with the forces of a demonic orb. His parents are devastated by the switch but have been just as desperate for a child and decide to continue raising the boy. Unfortunately, that orb had been cursed to be destroyed after three years, and the parents decide to raise Ne Zha to be ignorant of both his origin and his fate.

This feels like China’s closest equivalent to a Dreamworks film, a work with something to say about good and evil that should appeal to all ages. However, it is absolutely bogged down by a crude, childish sense of humor. These jokes are ever-present and rarely funny. A key sequence nearing the film’s climax is resolved with a fart joke. Another cheap joke finds Ne Zha terrorizing his community right after his birth, causing the most masculine-looking man in the crowd to scream like a woman. Then this happens again, and again, and again.

This is really jarring because the moral message seems to be coming from a much better place. This is the tale of two beings rising above their origins while still faltering due to the baggage they carry. The view of morality shifts in surprising ways, and there’s a lot to dig into when not being overwhelmed with crudeness.

The animation here is a strange beast. The fluidity of the motion is fine, which is good considering this is largely an action movie. However, most of the scenes have stale camera work and similarly lacking backgrounds. Much of the movie looks like characters standing in front of a flat background while the camera refuses to move. It shakes out of this on rare occasions and especially during the final battle, but this is clearly a company that has decent technology and little experience to put it to use.

Despite the flaws, I found it strangely charming. I think this is due to the characters. Ne Zha is enjoyable in his devilish mischief while carrying the extra complexity of still being driven to improve his relations with a small community that naturally scorns him. His rival, Ao Bing, is much more collected, being born of the pearl – but he is similarly born of a much-maligned race of dragons. Their conflict is striking, as they appear to be the only two that can possibly understand the other’s experience and form a friendship while being seemingly doomed to fight each other. Just as strong is Ne Zha’s relationships with his parents. His father Li Jing is always at a distance, but mother Yin is compelled to try and connect with her son, if only to bring him some pleasure in his short life.

All in all, Ne Zha can be charming at the right times and annoying at its worst. It’s a fine enough animated film and it’s good to see something like this coming from a foreign market. There’s enough promise here to have hope that this company can eventually produce something that transcends beyond a mere curiosity for audiences outside the Chinese market.

3 Stars Out of 5

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