Finally a Chinese film that I actually enjoyed watching.
(I’ve already posted my review on IMDb, and I’d like to share my in-theater experience of Nezha on this site as well, if that is allowed by the policy.)
After months of rolling my eyes at the social media buzz about this supposedly “great Chinese animation”, I finally found the one Regal theater in town that actually shows this Chinese-made movie. And oh boy, I’m so glad I did.
Initially, I was so turned off by this movie’s trailer, since it had all the worst stereotypes of a Chinese-made films, with all the cheesy expositions, cringey dialogues, and awkward voice acting. I was so sure that “Nezha” was just another piece of garbage coming out of my home country’s money-grabbing film industry that had become so shamelessly greedy in recent years. But my low expectations were pleasantly subverted.
After some struggling of finding a parking spot, I found myself in a relatively small-sized IMAX theater packed with young Chinese people, and a handful of white Americans, and one nice black lady that very much stood out in this crowd. And I’m almost certain that all of us enjoyed the two hours of fun and entertainment this film offered us, albeit on different levels.
Almost immediately after the movie started playing, I found myself already irritated by the unnecessarily long opening credits of all the production companies associated with “Nezha”. This is one of the many shady industry practices in China, where all the entities involved in the film’s production process shamelessly tried to promote their brands, regardless of how much actual contribution they’ve made. But shortly after the actual film began to show on the screen, I was easily won over by the opening scene where the famous Daoist immortal “Taiyi Zhenren” was revealed to be an obese and seemingly incompetent idiot. This scene was surprising to me for several reasons. It was a subversion of the genre trope. When it comes to the genre of Chinese mythology films, Daoist immortals were almost always portrayed as wise old men whose wisdom and authority are not to be questioned. And here in “Nezha”, one of the most powerful and respected Daoist deities was portrayed as a buffoon who actually had real human personality. I know this small characterization would probably be unnoticeable and meaningless to non-Chinese audience. But me being a fantasy nerd who grew up in China and lives in US, I know how brave the filmmakers of “Nezha” must be to make the decision to actually make a powerful Daoist deity feel like a living and breathing human. I consider this as a successful subversion of the genre trope without being disrespectful to the original source material. And it’s definitely an ingenious adaptation of the ancient Chinese folklore without being offensive to the actual real-life Daoist religion.
And at the same time, I was surprised to find myself laughing out loud like a child and ACTUALLY enjoying the jokes and humors of the film, which I think is very rare in Chinese films. Even though I haven’t watched any Chinese film for many years, I’m aware of the awfulness and cringiness of the typical attempts at comedy by trying to crack an awkward joke between scenes in Chinese films. But here in “Nezha”, I enjoyed all of the comedy in it, even though I can see how goofy it is. I consider goofiness in film as a good thing if it is done right.
There are more turns and twists than I expected throughout the film, and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole ride. However, I have to point out, there are one or two very brief moments in the film, which I didn’t appreciate as much. I know the filmmakers were being serious in those brief moments, trying to evoke a certain emotion from audience. But it didn’t work on me because of the imperfect voice acting in those scenes which took me right out of the film. Don’t get me wrong, the voice acting was absolutely awesome in “Nezha”, much better than most films. But in certain brief moments, it just didn’t work for me.
Now comes the only possible issue of “Nezha”, which might be an impediment to non-Chinese audience’s enjoyment of this otherwise flawless animation film. That is the English subtitles. I have to acknowledge that I myself could not do a better job than they did, at translating the Ancient Chinese mythological concepts into modern-day English while trying to make sense to an audience unfamiliar with Chinese culture at large. But I’d like to argue perhaps transliteration might be a better approach than imprecise translation. Also I have to point out, as with almost all foreign language films, the humors and multi-layered emotions of most dialogues in “Nezha” were inevitably lost in translation.
Overall, “Nezha” was one of the best Chinese entertainment I’ve experienced in recent years, even though I haven’t really watched that many real Chinese films. I’m glad that “Nezha” got a huge box office success in China which it so very much deserves. I’m not so sure “Nezha” would be a hit elsewhere. It might get popular to a certain degree on some streaming platforms. But I doubt it will get mainstream popularity in US, since most American media’s portrayal of everything remotely related to China has been so negative lately ever since the Trade War.
Anyway, for me, a fantasy-loving nerd who grew up in China and lives in US, I thoroughly enjoyed “Nezha”. But I don’t know the experience would be the same for everyone, since you have to have a certain willingness to put up with imprecise translation while at the same time trying to be culturally open-minded.
P.S. Sorry about my rambling in this long-ass review. But I can’t believe I actually enjoyed a Chinese animation film so I have to take the time to write my genuine feelings about it.
(Additional comments: CHINA was a nation that had once gave the world the absolutely worst garbage film series ever produced by mankind. I’m talking about, of course, the infamous “Tiny Times” series by the famed gay novelist Guo Jingming. Ever since my great suffering by Guo Jingming’s garbage films, I had never ever given any Chinese-made films any sort of serious interest until the year 2019. At the beginning of this year, there was the surprise box office success, the “Wandering Earth”, which I also enjoyed. And now I’m thoroughly won over by “Nezha”. I think it’s been a good year for the Chinese film-making and we shall see if it will last.)
As of the time of this review the movie has already reached 4.7 billion in box office, making it the second most popular film in Chinese history just after Wolf Warrior 2. Given all the problems that have plagued the animation industry in Mainland China, this is an unprecedented milestone that will hopefully bring us many more quality animations for all audiences.
Being a devout supporter of Chinese animation, I took the first opportunity I got to watch this film, if only to experience renewed pride for my home country. As someone who grew up with Chinese legends and folk tales, this film brought an overwhelming surge of nostalgia. I have to acknowledge my potentially biased standpoint on the quality of this film, as my excitement over its mere existence is enough for me to give it 10s all around. However, having watched it twice now (once emotionally and once more analytically), I believe I am capable of enough rational thought to give a fairly balanced review.
Story (9/10) - The film tells the tale of Nezha, a child originally destined for greatness who becomes victim to a scheme that drastically alters his fate. Having inherited a monstrous power, Nezha becomes ostracized by the people in his home community. In an attempt to save Nezha from his demonic nature, his parents and master/teacher train him to do good deeds through fighting monsters. Unfortunately, a series of misunderstandings make their plans unsuccessful, and even Nezha’s only friend is forced to turn against him. Nezha also learns that he is destined to die via a calamity spell on this third birthday, a secret that had been purposefully kept secret from him so he could live a fulfilling life.
I enjoyed the story not because of its plot but because of the powerful messages that it conveyed. Despite all of the problems that he faces, Nezha chooses to fight - against fate, against prejudice, and against anything that stands in his way. He teaches the audience that anything is possible, and that regardless of what anyone else says, one’s own actions are the ones that count.
Art (8/10) - I was initially very put-off by Nezha’s design, as it was so contrary to all of the other depictions of him, traditional or modern (possibly with the exception of Shi Wan Ge Leng Xiao Hua). But about 30 minutes into the film this quirky unconventional design became my favorite, as I fell in love with his expressive face and adorable mannerisms.
The character of Nezha was super well animated, and definitely a highlight to the art. While there are a few characters that I didn’t like much, the overall art style was surprisingly pleasant. In terms of the special effects and background art, I feel that they may have been excessive at times, especially with the water animations. However, I am of the opinion that having too much is better than not having enough, and at this stage in Chinese animation I’m more than satisfied with what was produced.
Sound (8/10) - The voice acting for Nezha, his parents, Ao Bing, and most of the side characters was superb. I hold mixed feelings about Taiyi’s Szechuan accent, and there’s this one muscular villager whose high pitched screams I honestly cannot stand. But overall I really enjoyed the voice acting, enough that I actually looked up the main voice actors since I loved their performance so much.
The weakest point of the movie, though, is the background music. There is a main theme that plays pretty much every time Nezha is on screen (which is frequent considering how he’s the protagonist), and at some point it just got really repetitive. The emotionally moving scenes also could have benefited from better sound.
Character (10/10) - I don’t think there’s a single character I hated in the entire movie, which is pretty unusual since I’m not one to love people easily. I adored the way that both of Nezha’s parents were portrayed, which consisted of a slightly more modern twist on more traditional characterizations. For instance, I expected his father to be a very stern man. While he was strict in the film, he also had a caring side that moved me to tears near the movie’s climax.
I also loved how none of the characters were truly good or evil. Even those who played an antagonistic role had justifiable reasons for doing so, which strengthened the thematic complexity of the movie. Nezha, especially, is the epitome of this, as his edgy/punk/tsundere exterior is really just the armor used to hide a soft, caring, cinnamon roll. While he smiles like an arsonist and speaks with words sharper than knives, all he desires is companionship and belonging. (My inner Bakugou Katsuki fan was squealing so hard when I saw Nezha on screen. I think he’s my new favorite character.)
Additionally, I really loved the beautiful and unlikely friendship that blossomed in this film. It was equal parts magically adorable and heart-wrenchingly depressing. My inner fujoshi may have enjoyed it a little more than necessary.
Enjoyment (9/10) - I’m going to borrow a phrase from our lovely Chinese internet buddies for this section, because it summarizes the movie so nicely: “魔童降世将笑点最后都化为燃点和泪点”. The movie has so many humorous moments, some of which require a decent understanding of the Chinese language to get, but most of which can be enjoyed by all audiences (though westerners may find it strange that there are so many jokes about peeing, drinking, and farting). But what makes the film truly special is how it revisits many of those initially humorous moments later in the story, and deviously twists them to hit the audience with the feels train. And you'd really have to be a brick to not feel the passion and the sadness.
Overall I rate the movie 9/10. I admit that it’s far from perfect, but I also believe it’s one of those films that’s really worth watching if you get the chance. Hopefully my review has convinced you to at least consider giving it a try.
At the end of this review, I just wanted to say thank you to all the 1000+ people who worked on this film for 5 years to make it a reality. Because it was truly a masterpiece that reminded me of all of those childhood days spent obsessing over that 52 episode Nezha kids cartoon, waving around a red Christmas ribbon and shouting at invisible enemies. It was a indescribably profound experience to watch the same story, 15 years later, reimagined as something even greater than it was before. Somehow, Ne Zha Zhi Mo Tong Jiang Shi retained all of the key features of the Nezha films that came before it, and yet synthesized them together in fresh and engaging ways. I left the theatre feeling empowered and inspired.