Myths and legends, stories like those of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round, Robin Hood, and Paul Bunyan and those of gods, goddesses, demons, and immortals, are often given the adaptation treatment in cinema. These stories are often based on real events, twisted into parables, so that future generations can learn lessons of morality or examine the notions of fate vs. self-determinism. First released in China in July 2019 before a wider release later in the year, is the Enlight Pictures animated feature Ne Zha, an adaptation of a story from within the Chinese novel Fengshen Yanyi (The Investiture of the Gods) which tells of the birth of a great warrior named Nezha who protects about as often as he comes into conflict with his father, Li Jing. As though borrowing only from the elements which would make the story more universal and easier to adapt, co-writer/director Jiao Zi and co-writer Wei Yunyun tell a similar story within a vastly different shell that astounded Chinese audiences into making it the highest grossing animated film in Chinese cinema history.
At a time undetermined, the spiritual energies of Heaven and Earth converged upon each other to create the Chaos Pearl, a sentient and seemingly indestructible force of incomparable power. To stop the insatiable hunger of the being, the Supreme Lord of Heaven sent two immortals, Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) and Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei), to stop the Pearl’s consummation of energy which made it grow stronger. Ultimately, the Pearl is too strong for the duo and the Supreme Lord steps in, containing the creature and splitting it into two distinct energies: a Demon Pill and a Spirit Pearl. Before sending the two halves away for safe keeping, the Supreme Lord casts a Heavenly Curse upon the Demon Pill, effectively damning it to death by lightning strike in three years. Favoring warrior Li Jing (Chen Hao) due to his exploits in battle, the Supreme Lord proclaims that the Spirit Pearl will be given to him so that the energy can be reincarnated as Jing’s third born son. However, Spirit Pearl is replaced with the Demon Pill and Jing’s son is imbued with the forceful energies of a demon. With only three years until their son’s death, Jing and his wife, Lady Yin (Qi Lü), do everything they can to protect the firebrand and lead him to a path of virtue. But is Nezha doomed before he was born or can he take control and become the master of his own destiny?
There’s no decree that animated features are intended for children, but Ne Zha is absolutely for older kids who can handle light violence and adult themes. The adaptation does center on a child fated to die, after all, yet, Jiao and Wei manage to make the dour into something inspirational. Just because someone was born something or enters life knowing its limits doesn’t mean that the individual is bound by the rules placed upon them. In short, just because you’re going to die doesn’t mean that you can’t elect to set the terms. This is, of course, the obvious theme within Ne Zha and it’s certainly one audiences have seen before; however, it’s the journey the characters take that makes the resolution emotionally satisfying. In their version of this story, Nezha is loved and protected by his parents, trained by Zhenren, and convinced he is the Spirit Pearl in human form. While this goes against Nezha’s obvious fiery nature, it spins the film entirely as one more interested in determining our own fate over what people believe we are destined for. Wisely, Wei and Zi don’t shorthand this, showing Nezha as a petulant child who believes that force is greater than wisdom and who undergoes a variety of trails so that his subconscious pain is laid bare for Nezha to confront.
Considering the culture from whence this story originates, Ne Zha is almost rebellious in its use of beloved literature as a means of touting personal autonomy in the face of a larger collective belief. The mere fact that Zhenren keeps the truth from the Supreme Lord and does train Nezha goes to show that demagogical thought contains opposition. This is supported by the fact that Li is chosen as the father of the Spirit Pearl reincarnate for his devotion to Heaven, yet Li chooses to protect his son over the wishes of that same higher power. There are certainly several aspects within Ne Zha which seem to go along with current Chinese policies; yet, despite this, there is an undercurrent of contractual thinking of what the characters owe to each other that dwarfs any current political thinking. One need only look at the added narrative conflict of the Dragon King and Ao Bing (Mo Han/Aleks Le) which is born out of a rejection and negligence of duty from Heaven. It’s impressive that an animated feature would be so packed with political and philosophical insight, while also being wondrously entertaining.
Some stories are truly intended as told via animation. There’s always been a trend in cinema of taking stories from various media and making than live-action, except the results are uneven. Look at the failure of Max Payne to translate the simple neo-noir of the beloved video game into the mostly unimaginative trope-filled cop drama. Or the reduction of Marvel Comics’s Venom from murderous anti-hero into utter camp thanks to a failure to understand the character and its motivation. Ne Zha, however, is adapted in such a way that it takes advantage of animation to create action sequences that not only serve to communicate character conflict and growth, but look incredible at the same time. For instance, Zhenren utilizes an enchanted scroll as a place to train Nezha. Here, anything they can think of can be created using a specific magical brush. It’s a place of pure imagination and the scroll ends up being a center-piece in an already clever combat sequence. Upping the ante from an already amusing and clever twist of combat trope, four combatants find themselves inside the scroll and their environment changes each time a different person grabs the brush. It would require too much CGI for the sequence to look authentic in live-action, but, in animation, it becomes a scene of abject hilarity. This doesn’t even touch the denouement, which sees Nezha make his choice for the type of person he’ll be. This sequence alone should be seen on the largest screen possible just to get the scope the animators are going for as it’s truly impressive in its design and ability to capture the emotional tension of the moment.
If there is concern that the violence is going to be too much for younger audiences, even with such innovative means of shifting the approaches, it may be helpful to know that there’s rarely any real sense of danger at any point of Ne Zha. For instance, the four-way battle inside the scroll results in all four being trapped inside a sphere together and the only way to move it is either by blowing air out of the mouth or passing gas. Guess which one wins the bout for control of the sphere. When Nezha is born, a living meatball erupting with fire, Nezha takes on a shape and stance familiar to anyone clued into the Terminator franchise. If you don’t catch it, there’s a musical cue to bring the reference out of obscurity and slaps you in the face (it even gets a vocal response from one of the characters). The whole film is chock full of either self-referential or ridiculous moments that play well to young audiences. The humor does reduce the hallowness of the narrative, which is unclear if it’s an accident or on purpose, but it does lean toward supporting the rebelliousness of this iteration of the myth of Nezha.
As expressed before, there’s a lot of Ne Zha that’s predictable. It utilizes well-worn conflicts of petulant child and parents with secrets and has all the hallmarks of a coming of age tale just with a mystical/martial arts bend. It’s not dull, especially with the lovely character and set design, but it’s certainly something audiences have seen before. However, if you find yourself enjoying Ne Zha and want more from this universe of stories, make sure to stick around for two end credits scenes. One of them speaks to an unresolved conflict within Ne Zha, while the other tees up the release of Jiang Ziya, another tale inspired by Fengshen Yanyi. It was intended for release in the United States on February 7th, 2020, but was pulled from global theaters in response to COVID-19. If Jiang Ziya is half as entertaining as Ne Zha, Enlight Pictures may have another hit on their hands.
No special features were available at the time of this review and research indicates that features are not included with the home release.
Available on digital beginning February 25th, 2020.
Available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD March 3rd, 2020.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.