By Isabel Galwey
Shaopeng Chen’s PhD dissertation examines Chinese animation works for cinema between 1995—the year that the domestic production of Chinese animation ceased to be a state-run effort—and 2015, focusing on what he describes as a “new generation” of animations produced during this period. Chen uses this term both to differentiate films produced after 1995 from their state-run predecessors mainly produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio and to indicate a degree of historical continuity between the two periods. He discusses these works in economic, narrative and aesthetic terms, analyzing their context within Chinese cinema and the wider Chinese creative industries. Chen’s work provides new insights about how various players —for example, the Chinese government, Chinese production companies or Chinese audiences—have contributed towards the shaping of Chinese animation over the last two decades. He argues that this “new generation” Chinese animation lacks a distinctive national identity, but can instead be described as a period of diverse exploration. Chen uses detailed case studies of four Chinese-language animated feature films in order to support his arguments, including Lotus Lantern (1999), the Boonie Bears films (2014 and 2015), the Kuiba series (2011, and its sequels 2013 and 2014) and Monkey King: Hero is Back (2015).
The dissertation comprises 6 chapters, including an introduction and a conclusion. Chapter 1, the introduction, begins with an exhaustive literature review and a brief history of animation in China. Next, Chen outlines the environment in which new generation Chinese animations have been created. Chen argues that in many respects these works have a dual identity: an identity as a type of entertainment media which aims to gain profit, and an identity as highly creative works of visual art. He also asserts that due to the large quantity of resources required and the variability of success, Chinese animation for cinema is one of the most “dynamic and risky creative practices” within the Chinese cultural sphere.
In Chapter 2 Chen discusses his first case study, the 1999 film Lotus Lantern. Chen argues that this film was the first blockbuster of Chinese animated cinema, making use of both Hollywood and Chinese themes and iconography. Chen further examines the context in which the animation was made: it was a creation of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Although the film draws much inspiration from earlier seminal works of Chinese animation, Chen argues that it is also extremely innovative, using strategies and techniques new to Chinese animation such as matching dialogue, digital visual effects and an all-star voice cast. Lastly, Chen discusses the parallels between the plot and characters in Lotus Lantern and archetypes of both Chinese and Hollywood storytelling. He also demonstrates the clear influence of Chinese visual art forms—including those from ethnic minorities—on the animation style of the film.
Chapter 3 reviews the 2014 and 2015 Boonie Bears animated feature films “Rescue” and “Winter.” Chen argues that because Boonie Bears was originally a television series, the derivative feature films, based on an existing franchise, offered a security which standalone feature films lack. In this chapter, Chen focusses on the influence of consumer preferences and innovative marketing techniques over the feature films produced in China. By detailing the reduction in violence from the original Boonie Bears TV series, and the presentation of the antagonist Logger Vick as a sympathetic character, Chen demonstrates the power which audience preferences have over creative choices made within Chinese animation. He also suggests that the fact that Logger Vick suffers many of the same pressures as contemporary Chinese adults face demonstrates an attempt to directly engage with parents, thus enhancing the animation’s intergenerational appeal. By analyzing the innovative marketing techniques used for the film—such as targeted ticket sale techniques and product placement—Chen further explores the economics of animation in China, as well as setting the scene for his detailed discussion of marketing in Chapter 5.
Chapter 4 examines Chen’s third case study, the well-liked but commercially unsuccessful Kuiba series. The films premiered in 2011, 2013 and 2014 respectively. Chen begins by theorizing about the causes of the 2D adventure drama’s box office failure. He suggests that it may have been due to an overly ambitious attempt to create a fictional fantasy universe without the support of a previously existing franchise. According to Chen, the film also suffered from existing negative stereotypes about Chinese cinematic animation, resulting in low initial interest and box office loss. In the long-term, however, Chen argues that the film gained considerable attention from both critics and audiences, and its reputation improved. According to Chen, Kuiba demonstrates many of the tensions present in contemporary Chinese animation, especially questions of originality and mimicry. Chen presents a balanced view of these issues by drawing a set of visual and narrative parallels between the Kuiba series and prominent Japanese animated works, but also highlighting the rich variety of historical and cultural Chinese sources from which the creators drew their inspiration. Chen also asserts that Kuiba is notable as the first attempt in the history of Chinese animation to create an original fantasy universe for cinema.
Chapter 5 focusses on the 2015 box office miracle Money King: Hero is Back, a feature-length animation which was popular with critics and audiences alike. Chen proposes that besides its stellar storytelling and high level of craftsmanship, a large amount of the film’s success was due to its innovative and engaging marketing campaign. Chen goes on to explore in detail the grassroots mobilization techniques that allowed the film’s popularity to spread with such unprecedented success. He also examines the growing importance of online social networks and influencers on the success of film for cinema, pointing out the way that subsequent Chinese animations have adopted these techniques in their own campaigns. As in previous chapters, Chen also provides an in-depth exploration of the film’s plot, themes and main characters, most notably its anti-hero protagonist, a re-imagined Sun Wukong. In contrast with his stylized depictions in earlier Chinese animation, the Sun Wukong of Hero is Back is expressively simian. As a character, he seems older, more flawed and more human; Chen argues that this dramatic revamp of Sun Wukong offers a fresh perspective on a staple of Chinese animation. Finally, Chen points out the effect which wider trends within the Chinese film industry had on the success of Hero is Back, pointing out that industry protectionism and 2015’s “summer blackout” of foreign films contributed hugely to this domestic animation’s success.
Shaopeng Chen’s dissertation offers a comprehensive and nuanced study of new generation Chinese animation for cinema, using a well-chosen set of case studies to approach the topic from a variety of perspectives. His work provides an original and invaluable analysis of contemporary Chinese animation as well as a significant contribution to the wider field of Chinese animation studies.
Isabel Galwey is a third-year undergraduate of Chinese studies at the University of Oxford, UK. Her research interests include the study of modern and contemporary Chinese art, design, literature and film, with a special focus on animation. She is also interested in creative dialogues between China and the world. Before beginning her degree at Oxford, she completed a Foundation Diploma in Art and Design, specializing in Illustration and Animation.