Mainland China has been enjoying a renewed appreciation for animation—one that links cyberspace with the box-office, and that extends far beyond the categories of children’s “donghua” or “meishu film.” The problems encountered by Chinese animation during the past 30 years has been the unnegotiated conflicts between the marketization of Chinese animation filmmaking and the lingering dream of returning to the heyday of the Chinese School of Animation mainly produced by the Shanghai Animation Film Studio, as well as the general public’s long-lasting and obstinate idea that animation is mainly for kids. The rise of computer animation and the Internet in the early 2000s reveals the coming age of online animation (wang luo dong hua) through the network of experimental/independent animation. The pioneers of online animation not only developed an alternative taste for the new generation of audience and announced the changing cultural and industrial identity of Chinese animation, but also established an aesthetic heterogeneity in which the value for artistic experimental value and visual redefinition of Chinese animation that was always-already present and just awaiting release could thrive. Even though child-oriented animations, with their cute animated sheep, bear and cat characters are comfortably situated within television series and feature animated films, the alternatives have been launching in cyberspace for the future rejuvenation of Chinese animation.
This essay aims to examine the most dynamic shift of Chinese independent animation in the marketplace by rereading some animated feature films, namely The Monkey King: Hero Is Back (2015), Big Fish & Begonia (2016), The Guardian (2017), White Snake: The Originals (2018) and the recently released Nezha (2019). These mythical/folkloric fantasy blockbusters, among others, demand not only a revised understanding of Chinese animation as such, but also an examination of the newly emergent animation filmmakers, who have survived within the independent, small-budget animation programs for over decades by dreaming big.
Where The Monkey King: Hero Is Back tells of the rebirth and adventurous journey of the Monkey King that most Chinese audiences know nothing about, Nezha depicts the rebellious childhood and the unusual brotherhood between a young boy named Nezha and a dragon princess named Ao Guang, who symbolize the mutual coexistence of Good and Evil, the Ying and Yang of the universe. Monkey King and Nezha, as the most recognized rebellious heroes in classic Chinese mythology, have been rewritten, retold, and e-filmed in award-winning animations many times, not to mention their appearances in various other literature and art forms as well, such as folklore, Chinese traditional opera, comic books, audio-visual productions, and so on. But these two films in particular do not represent the “Fantastic Two” as superheroes at first; instead, they visualize the weakness and loneliness of Monkey King and Nezha, dramatically twisting their big-screen depiction to challenge the aesthetic reception of the audience. These old-fashioned mythical heroes were successfully updated into lost young people in these stories about identity, commitment, friendship, and the sense of accomplishment.
Big Fish & Begonia and The Guardian project their storylines to other parallel universes by imagining both folkloric utopia and dystopia through the lens of animated figures. The storytelling models of both films forewarned the audience reception, especially the adolescents and the young adults. Big Fish & Begonia brought us a nostalgic moment in memory of the heyday of the Flash-based online animation by depicting an alternative mythological scene about the philosophy of the harmony co-existence and the romanticized commitment between the human-being and the big-fish community. The dual universes are not new to the audience but the unnegotiable commitment is too odd to be received well by the viewers, especially for those who missed the nostalgic initiation of Big Fish & Begonia. Similar to Big Fish & Begonia, The Guardian walks outside of the comfortable zone of independent animation and takes the audience to an allegoric universe where the main characters survived as the virus-infected peanut-man (Hua sheng ren) waiting for the extinction any instant. The polarized reviews regarding the distribution of both Big Fish & Begonia and The Guardian gave us a glimpse of how the audience was troubled by the storytelling of these independent animations, despite the directors already working hard to place their storylines within the comfort zone of the animation market. However, controversy still arose.
White Snake: The Originals exemplifies the ongoing trend of co-productions between China and Hollywood in animation filmmaking. The genre of White Snake: The Originals is a romantic narration of the unacceptable love story between a human being and human-shaped demon (the giant snakes), with protagonists that are visually reminiscent of Mulan and a climactic battle against the dark master. The mythology of White Snake has long been at the center of bedtime stories for Chinese children, linking Chinese folklore to reality, through aspects such as the white snake couple first meeting at the Broken Bridge (Duan qiao) on the West Lake of Hangzhou, a famous landmark. All of the feature animations I have touched upon are milestones for the history of China’s “NEW” animation.
This essay is a reflection on the re-popularity of animation in Mainland China, thanks to the symbolically newborn Monkey King, the innocent-as-usual White Snake, the extremely weird Guardian, the unfamiliar intimacy between the human being and world of Big Fish, the anti-cutesiness of Nezha, and of course the countless unnamed pioneers and animators behind them. I cannot help but recall the early days of my research, when I studied Chinese independent online animation in 2003 as a PhD candidate at the City University of Hong Kong. It was a marvelous period when young people began to embrace the technologies of digital animation and made the debut of Chinese independent online animation on the Internet. It was also the remarkable beginning for those young independent animators who humbly daydreamed of making their own blockbusters.
The Flash-based short animation Big Fish & Begonia (2003) debuted online 15 years ago as an entry for a NetEase-sponsored competition, for an e-commercial introducing the email to the first generation of the Chinese Internet users, many of whom had been following the online animation shorts uploaded by B&T Studio for years. Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, the directors of the Flash version of Big Fish & Begonia, launched B&T Studio along with the rise of the hundreds of animation studios and small companies in the mid-2000s. At that time, artistic, non-commercial animation shorts were showcased via Flash-animation friendly websites, including the work of Busiyi, the director of The Guardian and the Black Bird series. It took more than ten years for that first generation of Chinese independent animators to gain the strength to engage with feature-length animation production, and the long journey was made difficult with obstacles. The director of The Monkey King: Hero Is Back worked on the edge of bankruptcy, and was saved by sponsorship from his wife and father-in-law; Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun’s project of the feature-length Big Fish & Begoniawas crowd-funded by fans of the original Flash animation; Busiyi was lucky to get the Rainbow House animation studio to invest in The Guardian at the very low budget of 20 million RMB (less than 3 million USD); and Jiaozi co-worked with hundreds of small studios for many years in order to make the amazing debut of Nezha in 2019.
The stories of the five above-mentioned feature animations show us not only the life-or-death choices of Chinese independent animators as they uneasily rushed into the commercial animation market, but also shed light on both the similarities and the differences in their paths to success. They were all determined to refuse child-only-oriented animation as stock animation tropes. They regenerated classic Chinese mythical/folkloric fantasies out of the cliché and simultaneously borrowed imaginary heroes and memes from cyberspace so as to create dialogue with the new millennial audiences while also speaking to memories from the 70s and 80s. At the same time, they tactically reveal the triumph of adapting the pillars of Chinese classic masterpieces into modern storylines for animation audiences, especially as shown by The Monkey King: Hero Is Back, White Snake: The Originals and Nezha.Last but not least, they ingeniously defined themselves as independent creatives and somehow managed to succeed in the chaotic rise and fall of the feature animation market. Together, they call upon the pursuit of the aesthetic identity and language that defines Chinese “NEW” animation.
This essay does not offer a historical mapping of the changing face of Chinese animation and has no ambition to examine the ongoing theorizations of the study of Chinese “NEW” animation. However, in acknowledging its potential impact on Chinese animation filmmaking, we may trace and understand the “NEW”’s meaning as an independent but open-minded strategy for animation production, an updating but localized structure of animation storytelling, and a vivid working philosophy for the adaptation needed to cope with the ever-changing cultural, industrial, and commercial aspects. The influence of the “NEW” as they are in pursuit of their dreams marks a significant moment in the modern history of Chinese animation.
Weihua Wu is currently professor of media studies in the Faculty of Journalism and Communication at the Communication University of China in Beijing. He received his PhD from the City University of Hong Kong, and then joined the International Center for Advanced Studies at New York University as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in 2006. He was also a Fulbright research fellow at the department of Comparative Media Studies/Writing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in 2014-2015. As an academic, his research focuses on, but is not limited to, visual communication, Internet and youth culture, and animation studies. Weihua’s books include Critical Introduction to New Media (in Chinese, Fudan University Press, 2016), and Chinese Animation, Creative Industry, and Digital Culture (in English, Routledge, 2018).