My roommate from Hong Kong showed me this film. And as someone who’s been somewhat disappointed with other critically acclaimed animated features this year, like The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part and even Toy Story 4, I certainly now get why he was so excited to share this with me. I suspect we have very similar taste in movies.
The characters in Ne-Zha are all real-life legends. In the Shang Dynasty, over a thousand years before Jesus, Li Zing and Madam Yin were pregnant with a son. Meanwhile, there is an orb of the hearts of spirits and the blood-lust of demons, able to break apart, both of which kept inside an enclosed capsule shaped like a closed rose and the colour of sparkling lavender. God Tianzun realizes the orbs are acting up, and asks his helpers Taiyi and Shen to find what is wrong. However, a heist orchestrated by Shen to get the separated orbs out of the casket and into his hands succeeds, or partially succeeds, and the Demon Orb is cursed into Madam Yin’s son. And thus, Ne-Zha was born, a demon child born laughing at the explosions, destruction, and screams of terror he causes with the flick of his hands.
The only thing keeping him intact is a collar Haiyi cast a spell on, limiting his abilities but still leaving his strength, speed and attitude for destruction wide awake. The only reason he lives is because his mother loves him, but a prophecy states that within three years, thunder will strike and kill the orb, now known as the child, who as an infant already talks fluently and hates everybody. As the day approaches, Ne-Zha, unaware of this deadline and his origins, just might wreck the world, or realize being a monster is not entirely in his blood after all.
Those who are familiar with with the mythology based around this film will appreciate how beautiful of an animated feature was made out of it. I know any legendary story I’d be a big fan of, I’d want a movie like this to come from it. As an outsider, I appreciated Ne-Zha for how the film looks at assumptions and xenophobia and asks each of us what we’d do if we were one of the villagers anticipating the titular character’s countdown before his You-hide-he-violently-seeks game.
This movie at first reminded me of Brightburn, the movie that imagined Superman, but sadistic and still a juvenile. However, I gave that movie a very rare F, because its fight choreography was predictable, its characters were one-dimensional, and there wasn’t proper development about why this “Brightburn” lashed out. Ne-Zha eliminates those problems but impressively still keeps us hesitant about the titular character. Ne-Zha is unpredictable, aggressive, and at times shows signs of being sadistic. We still want to be his friend anyway.
That is because despite his temper and impatience, Ne-Zha reminds us of us, if we were like him, not just born of definitive evil but born with no friends, everyone afraid of him, and having a superpower no one else has, making him special. There are lots of people out there who’d maybe be as intolerable and destructive as him if they didn’t have a best friend, didn’t have anyone to turn to, didn’t have anything to live for, and did have the power to hurt those who harmed them.
But there’s more. Another character with mythical powers, Ao Bing, who has a very special connection to Ne-Zha, has a duty and prophecy of his own. He ends up being told he has to commit an evil act in order to free his family of dragons who have been forced underwater and away from the rest of the world for centuries (but don’t worry; they apparently were given gills.) And Ao Bing sees how much hatred Ne-Zha has felt, and how he’s the only one who could possibly ever understand him. No one in this movie is actually a bad g…well, there’s Shen, the greedy and jealous one, so maybe I should take that back. The point is, the main antagonist is the fear people have of those they don’t understand and their actions they choose to do as a result.
The animation is also surprisingly unbelievably good, rivaling America’s high-budgeted Pixar and Dreamworks studios. The expected but breathtaking buildings and their Chinese roofs, without having to worry about suffocating skyscrapers, the action scenes with zippy camera angles and inventive ways of choas, and the character models with a perfect balance of cartoon-resemblance and realism, are so well done, you feel this is a society ahead of its time and touched by gods to help the residents navigate. You can feel the history and togetherness.
Now, backtracking, the movie’s long 110-minute running time allows the beginning act to take its time with introducing us to the causes of the conflicts, like if How to Train your Dragon began with taking us to the first day a viking and a dragon decided to battle to the death for a full stomach. Spirited Away also took its time, and I regard that as one of the best films of all time, like 90% of people who’ve seen it. I should really catch up on what Eastern animation has to offer. Nothing in Ne-Zha feels like it’s in a hurry.
I see Ne-Zha as a zippy exciting animated feature that is not worrying about scaring children. It doesn’t have the atmosphere of having a happy ending, making audiences really not sure if there will ever be exhalation. It’s a character study on the most stigmatized kid of Chinese folklore. It looks at the important innocence of keeping an open mind against preconceived fears. If it ever gets an English dubbed release, I hope the scriptwriters don’t attempt to make the story gentler and free of profanity. That wouldn’t bring justice to the film’s powerful gravity.