Ne Zha (2019) borrows a little too heavily from American animation styles. But is still brought to life by a creative re-imagination of the original myth.
Ne Zha 2019 (哪吒之魔童降世) Synopsis
A destructive Chaos Pearl is subdued by Yuanshi Tianjun and split into the Spirit Pearl and the Demon Orb, with the Demon Orb also due to be disintegrated by heavenly lightning three years later. A subsequent series of mishaps then results in the Demon Orb being reborn as Ne Zha, the son of General Li Jing. Rebellious and rambunctious, Ne Zha soon becomes the scourge of town, widely feared by young and old. In an attempt to rein in his boy, Li Jing agrees to Sage Taiyi Zhenren’s proposal to teach Ne Zha magic cultivation skills. Meanwhile, the Dragon King, whose son has fused with the Spirit Pearl, schemes to free his tribe from their deepwater prison once and for all.
Inclusive of half-hour kids’ animation features, I must have watched the Ne Zha story over ten times.
Yes. As one of the most popular Chinese “myths,” as in pop fiction that was historically so well-received it became a myth, there had been retellings of the Ne Zha story as far back as I can remember. On this blog alone, I previously reviewed a 70s Shaw Brothers kung-fu version.
For this reason, I wasn’t particularly keen when this Chinese animation was briefly screened in Singapore last year. Actually, I wouldn’t have watched it last night, had cinemas not still remained closed because of COVID-19.
Well, hmm, it wasn’t what I expected. The movie started on rather thin ground, with overboard attempts to mimic Illumination i.e. American-style animated humour. Honestly, I also felt found this version of child Ne Zha the most dislikeable I’ve ever watched.
But the movie gradually dishes out its strengths. As a huge fan of the magical weapons featured in the original story, I loved the modern interpretations, especially those for the Universal Ring and the Diorama of Mountain and Sea. The “Xianxia” style combat was equally spectacular, and while I thought it was a tad too juvenile, the reinvented characters were nonetheless entertaining.
Most of all, I appreciated the changes to the Dragon Tribe and Dragon Third Prince Ao Bing. Now, if you’re familiar with Chinese myths and folktales, you’d know that the dragons are always fodder for trashing, including in Journey to the West and The Eight Immortals. It’s thoroughly refreshing to see these representative Chinese mythological beings finally portrayed in a respectable light.
And while the movie does not explicitly mention it, it also highlights a parallel that was never investigated in Investiture of the Gods i.e. the source material.
Ne Zha is widely venerated by the Chinese as the “Third Prince,” while Ao Bing, who was killed in the original story, was also the third son of the Eastern Ocean Dragon King. I’m sure many discerning readers have long pondered about the parallels between these two third sons while reading Investiture. It’s great that this has finally been acknowledged, and given due exploration.
PS: The sequel, Jiang Ziya, was due to be released in China on Chinese New Year, but was indefinitely delayed because of COVID-19. I’m now really, really eager for news of the new release date.
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