Foreign cinema! Subtitles!! Words likely to turn off American movie audiences, a group that notoriously avoids such fare. However, Ne Zha may be the film these audiences should make an exception for, if only on the assurance of the film’s simplicity and crossover appeal. The 3D animated film, loosely based on a Chinese legend, is a story based on the universal tale of good vs evil. It centers on the Heavenly Pearl, used to birth 2 children – Ne Zha, birthed by the demon pearl, and Ao Bing, birthed by the spirit pearl. If all this sounds incredibly silly, the film at least plays into this; the opening itself, and much of the proceeding events, is a tongue-in-cheek action-comedy reminiscent of Drunken Master and early Dragon Ball.
Ne Zha grows up as a mischievous douchebag, oblivious to his sinister origins and the prophecy that states he will bring chaos to his home. Think of him as the Chinese Hellboy, or Hellboy is the American Ne Zha, I don’t know. His parents try, mostly in vain, to shield Ne Zha from the true nature of his power while going through great lengths to give him something of a normal childhood. But his community’s fear of what he is and will become is the dark cloud that hovers over Ne Zha’s upbringing. Meanwhile, Ao Bing grows up in a completely different setting – beneath the ground, away from civilization. He’s raised to believe that he’s the hero of this story and that he is meant to defeat Ne Zha, but his guardians have ulterior motives behind these beliefs.
What’s striking about the film is that it’s energy feels unique but familiar. While a Chinese production, Western audiences may draw parallels in tone to Japanese anime; the film offers a similar medley of superpowered heroics, exaggerated expressions, and zany humor to Japan’s most famous entertainment export. As a result, Ne Zha will certainly be a required taste for those who are already on board with the bizarre, ludicrous, and feverishly silly elements of pulp entertainment. The colors are vibrant, the action scenes are hyper-stylized, adherence to physics are non-existent, and director Jiaozi mostly let’s the action do the storytelling during the big fights (up until the ending, where the exposition gets a bit expansive).
Jiaozi compliments this frantic style with an array of expressive and dramatic characters. Ne Zha appropriately leaves the biggest impression as a petulant expression of rage and mischief, while his mother, Madam Yin, and master, Taiyi Zhenren, standout as lovable goofballs who feel ill-equipped to handle Ne Zha’s absurd power despite their best efforts. Perhaps the only character that has the fortitude to deal with Ne Zha is his father Li Jing, whose acceptance of who his son is and the measures Li Jing takes to ensure his son’s safety in the event of catastrophe brings a level of relatability to a fairly otherworldly story.
In totality, Ne Zha is a story about facing the pre-conceived notions of society, and the people who are willing to stand by you even if it’s unpopular. Ne Zha is a boy that is flawed and immature, but that doesn’t make him unworthy of what he wants – respect. Blessed enough to have the love of his parents, it is the disrespect and disdain from the community around him that pisses him off and drives him to fits of rage. It’s the tragic cycle of prejudice, a paradox that can only be broken by abandoning the need for vengeance.
What Ne Zha teaches us is to celebrate our best and truest self. The title character makes no attempts to put on a social mask and conform to a more “acceptable” form of behavior. By being who he really is, it is easy to see the characters in the film who truly care about him. For if you’re honest about who you are, you’ll notice the people closest to you are true too.