China’s first feature-length animated film was Lianhua Studio’s Princess Iron Fan in 1941. Inspired by the sixteenth century novel Journey to the West, it was an immediate hit when released in wartime Shanghai. The Japanese navy promptly commissioned animation projects of its own to bolster the patriotic spirit of Japanese children. Among the kids watching the propaganda cartoons was a young Osamu Tezuka, who would later become Japan’s most famous cartoonist (and creator of Astro Boy).
Back in China audiences are debating whether they have just seen the nation’s best animation ever. Its main character is the Monkey King a Chinese superhero, who originally featured in the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West and who has long been a source of inspiration for Chinese film producers. Indeed, it feels like there is a major version of the Monkey King story released practically every year. In 2013 there was Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, while last year moviegoers got The Monkey King.
Yet when Monkey King: Hero is Back hit cinemas this month, the 3D animation caused a considerable stir. It proved wrong those who said Chinese animation was doomed to mediocrity and commercial failure.
The film had racked up nearly $77 million in box office revenue by July 19, and raced through $50-million threshold faster than any previous Chinese animation.
The slogan featured on movie posters for Hero is Back seems to have struck a chord among Chinese viewers too. “They said I was dead. Those who are fond of the new and tired of the old – they would like to see me dead. Are you one of them?”
Producer Lu Wei told the China Daily that the movie took eight years to make and was a different take on the traditional story, rebooted as an exciting struggle against evil and darkness in troubled times.
Director Tian Xiaopeng added: “The Monkey King is China’s superhero. It is so popular among Chinese audiences because they long for and cherish our own superhero.”
Inspiration for the movie came from watching his small son’s fascination with foreign superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, which prompted guilty feelings.
“I had to do something. My son needed Chinese legendary heroes. The Monkey King is a hero from the East. He is unruly and tragic, but persistent and unyielding,” he said.
Cinemagoers were pleased with the results. “The Monkey King is part of our culture,” Ou Xuting, a 30 year-old woman, told China Radio International. “When the Monkey King was fighting – and Chinese instruments or Peking opera songs were playing – I felt so proud. China is not short of good stories,” Ou enthused, adding that she cried while enjoying the film. (When WiC watched the film, a man nearby was laughing hard for much of the movie, but was reduced to tears at a couple of points.)
Patriotic remarks like Ou’s abounded online. The gist: it’s not only foreigners who can make good animations using China’s heritage (think Kung Fu Panda and Mulan). Here at last was an animation of similar production values to a Pixar movie, but which retained a distinctly Chinese quality.
Online critic Taotaotaofilm, who has close to 472,000 followers on Sina Weibo, told Xinhua that Tian’s film had inspired a new belief in Chinese culture: “We had great animations in the 1980s, but, although Chinese filmmakers learned from Hollywood, they gradually lost the essence of their culture.”
Few anticipated Hero is Back would be such a hit. The film cost just $3.2 million to make and its producers set aside hardly any marketing budget. Rather than enjoying a nationwide blitz, it appeared only on handful of screens when it first opened. From these unpromising beginnings it got a boost from a series of favourable newspaper reviews, and it soon began to be hotly recommended on social media.
In fact, the genre is all the rage right now. There are two major animation festivals this month, and the government has declared it a major focus. One plan: to encourage cinemas to show two hours of domestically produced cartoons every morning, at discounted prices. That should boost output further: the animation industry last year earned $6 billion, up 69% on 2013.
And also doing extremely well at the box office this week is a quasi-animation. Monster Hunt features stars like Tang Wei and Bai Baihe acting with CGI monsters and has already broken a couple of local box office records. According to the Hollywood Reporter the fantasy epic – which is set in pre-imperial China – took the most any film has made in a single day ($29.8 million) and had the highest opening weekend gross ever. Within just days it had topped $109 million.
It was a week for the best of Chinese animation, but also possibly one for the worst too. Cinemas were forced to axe an animated flick called The Autobots because it looked like a straight rip-off of Pixar’s Cars franchise. The film’s director claimed it was an original creation and he had never seen the adventures of Lightning McQueen and his cohorts, although even a casual glance at the characters shows the similarities.
An executive with a Shanghai cinema chain told the Shanghai Daily The Autobots was ditched because “the quality was very bad” and admitted there was also a copyright battle in the offing.
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