Animal spirits

Zootopia proves massive hit, flooring Superman and Batman in China

Cast member Shakira, who gives voice to the character of Gazelle, poses at the premiere of "Zootopia" at El Capitan theatre in Hollywood

Shakira: voice of the singing Thomson’s gazelle in the film

When Zack Snyder, Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck visited Beijing in early March to promote Batman v Superman they may have been surprised that they weren’t the highlights at the event. Instead, the crowd went berserk at the appearance of actor-model Li Yifeng, who was tapped by Warner Brothers to endorse the superhero film in China.

Given that Li possesses more than 30 million weibo followers, the move certainly makes commercial sense. But alas, even his star power failed to turn round the fortunes of the film. The latest superhero spectacle has taken a relatively disappointing Rmb400 million ($61.84 million) at the Chinese box office. Industry observers now predict that the film will struggle to even reach Rmb600 million in China ticket sales. Even Ant Man – a less-than-stellar release by rival Marvel – made more than $105 million in China (it earned just $180 million in the US).

All in all, it’s bad news for Warner Brothers. The studio desperately needed a superhero franchise to better compete against Disney’s wildly successful Marvel division. Last year that unit’s Avengers: Age of Ultron made $240 million in China.

“It’s nearly impossible to overstate the seriousness of this as a financial setback for Warner Bros’ DC unit and its Justice League franchise,” Rob Cain, an industry veteran, wrote in his Forbes column. “Not only will the rapid Chinese demise of Batman v Superman crimp the picture’s worldwide gross and greatly diminish its profitability, it has also soured the massive Chinese audience on future Justice League releases.”

Still, given China’s obsession with Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters, it is surprising how poorly the epic clash between the two superheroes has fared. One reason is the increasingly negative word of mouth. On Douban, the online film and TV show review site, user ratings have progressively worsened. On the first day of its release, the film got a decent 8.1 out of 10 but that tumbled to 6.7/10 by the end of the weekend.

“After watching only 10 minutes I started to yawn. The director wanted to convey a mood that is very sombre but he relies only on music (which is too loud) and colour (so dark we couldn’t see anything), making the already incoherent plot even more confusing,” one critic wrote on Douban.

“They shouldn’t call this a superhero action movie because it is really a drama film. The tone is dark and moody while the pacing is slow. It tries so hard to copy The Dark Knight (the second of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) but fails miserably,” another critic adds.

While reviews for Batman v Superman turned increasingly harsh, Disney’s latest animation Zootopia has been going from strength to strength in China. As of the end of last week, the family-friendly film reached Rmb1.3 billion at the box office. It has done so well that it has even overtaken Kung Fu Panda 3 (which raked in almost Rmb1 billion) to become the country’s top-grossing animated film of all time. Given that the film has no Chinese elements – unlike Kung Fu Panda 3 (see WiC312) – Zootopia’s success has caught Hollywood by surprise.

The film follows the story of Judy, a bunny, who wants to become the first rabbit police officer in the metropolis of Zootopia. She does so despite her parents telling her to give up that dream (“If you don’t try anything new, you’ll never fail,” her father advises her).

Online reviews for Zootopia have been overwhelmingly positive. On Douban, it received a score of 9.3 out of 10. Raymond Zhou, a well-known Chinese film critic, calls the film “a production that shows a lot of maturity and creativity”.

“How did this film arouse the interest of so many people? On the surface, it combines comedy with suspense, which makes for great entertainment. But if you look deeper, you will detect many social and political metaphors,” another reviewer wrote on MTime, another online movie platform.

Some children loved it so much that they watched it twice. Many parents don’t mind, though, as they have been using the film to teach their children how to overcome prejudices, says NetEase, a portal. One parent told media that a failure to watch Zootopia is like “missing the most important lesson on life”.

Major parenting blogs and forums, too, are now rushing to release talking points for parents to discuss with their children. “In Zootopia, every animal from elephants to mice lives together harmoniously. But even so, ‘equality’ is still just an ideal. Zootopia presents the reality to our children that prejudice is the norm and simply a fact of life,” one author on the Sohu parenting blog wrote.

(Not everyone was impressed: a professor at a Chinese military academy told the PLA Daily that the film was part of an “invisible propaganda” war to promote America’s values and ideology abroad, and threaten China’s “cultural territory”.)

The success of Zootopia has led to another thriving business. According to the Los Angeles Times, Chinese wild animal dealers around the country are reporting a huge spike in interest in fennec foxes, a rare and protected species that is similar to one of the characters in the film. In fact, queries for “fennec foxes” on the Chinese search engine Baidu soared from near zero at the start of the month to a peak of more than 6,500 a day. One dealer has put two of the foxes on sale for $6,150 in Beijing.

Unsurprisingly, conservationists are deeply concerned.

“If trading fennec foxes becomes a widely practiced business in China, the illegal trade of animals from their native region will certainly increase,” Zhang Jinshuo, an associate professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Zoology, told the LA Times. “That will reduce the number of wild fennec foxes and ultimately could lead to the extinction of this species.”

© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.