Ne ZhaReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 08/31/19 04:21:05
(Worth A Look)
If I were a ten-year-old Chinese kid, there's a good chance I'd be absolutely nuts for this movie, as seems to have happened back in its native land, where it was the biggest home-grown movie of the summer. It's got a lot of the ingredients to transcend many cultural barriers - big action, monsters, and wacky comedy - and is within shouting distance of top-tier animation, something imports from China haven't always achieved. It's busy and frantic, but kids often go for that.Will they go for the convoluted backstory that starts this movie if they don't find it until after its theatrical run? That tells the story of a group of Immortals dealing with a Chaos Crystal which has absorbed the power of the sun and moon and even a demon. It is captured and separated into a "Spirit Crystal" and a "Demon Pill", with rotund wizard Taiyi Zhenren (voice of Zhang Jiaming) told to let the Spirit Crystal incarnate in the child of Chentang Pass Chamberlain Li Jing (voice of Chen Hao) and Lady Yin Furen (voice of Lü Qi). His envious peer Sheng Gongbao (voice of Yang Wei) switches the Spirit Crystal and Demon Pill at the last minute, bringing the Crystal to the Dragon King to infuse into an egg while Li and Yin find themselves with an immensely powerful son possessed not of noble spirit but a tendency toward destructive mischief - and a Heavenly curse will cause a lightning bolt will strike and destroy the Demon Pill in three years.
That's a ton of stuff happening before Nezha (voice of Lü Yanting) is even born, and it's probably best not to concern oneself too much with the whole deal where Nezha and Ao Bing (voice of Han Mo), the dragon's human-looking son, mature to tween-dom more or less instantaneously (I wouldn't be shocked if the eventual English dub increased it to ten years despite three being part of the legend), with Sheng and the dragons mostly preparing Ao Bing for his part in their master plan off screen while Taiyi and Nezha's parents both beg the immortals for a reprieve and try to teach the boy magic and demon-hunting for discipline and so that the town will see him as useful rather than evil. The great strength of this main section is the approach writer/director "Jiaozi" Yang Yu takes with Nezha and his parents - there's never any reluctance to love or tendency toward a "switched-at-birth" angle, just a kid whose body chemistry makes self-control extremely difficult and parents who don't have the right knowledge to deal with it. It's easy to sympathize with both Nezha and his family simultaneously, in large part due to strong melding of character design and voice work: For all that Nezha's face distorts and Lü Yanting's voice work gets broad, he never seems quite malevolent, while Lü Qi and Lady Yin's animators always get across her need to do something to help the situation at every moment, while Chen Hao injects hints of paternal worry into a father who is often outwardly stoic.
Even with that in mind, Nezha can still be a tough one to like, especially when he seems knowingly flippant about the fallout from his destructive nature, while the super-deformed look he's given in the middle of conventional human characters can be a bit off-putting. For all that Jiaozi fills the movie with nifty creatures and amusing asides, a viewer can often feel like the film is marking time until the predestined climax, no matter how many breaks it takes for a little roughhousing. It's fun enough, especially if you're a kid, but a little lightweight when it starts to talk of fate and sacrifice just a couple minutes removed from fart and booger jokes (that they are excellent fart and booger jokes won't matter to some, but they are).
But once the action gets started, it's easy to see why this movie kept drawing Chinese audiences to premium theaters despite a gut of animation this summer. Not every action sequence is great, but Jiaozi and his crew put extra effort into the ones being done to do more than kill time, and the results make themselves clear the first time Nezha and Ao Bing (and a water demon) meet. That sequence is especially fluid and inventive, able to shift from elegant choreography to complete slapstick and back without missing a beat, with the sort of virtual camerawork that's almost impossible in live action and often overdone in animation, but which helps set a rapid pace here. The ability to shift easily between natural-seeming movement and broadly expressive cartooning is a big deal, making the action larger-than-life and the comedy freewheeling. The animation is pretty great both in terms of movement and the rendering power being thrown at it, with the Imax 3D screen used quite well, even looking great from up front.It's got the use of those Imax 3D screens in some cities because theaters may as well try the niche material on a weekend when many go to the movies less, but I suspect it will still look impressive once it shifts to conventional/flat screens and hits home video. How well it will play for kids outside of Chinatown is hard for me to guess, but I suspect those old enough to follow the subtitles will get a kick out of it.
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