This is apparently the second-highest grossing non-English film of all time. I get it.
Apparently based loosely on two chapters from Investiture of the Gods, a Chinese novel which I have never read.
There is a pearl that is born from the primordial forces of the universe, called the Chaos Pearl. The pearl can absorb energy, which leads it to start eating up much of creation. Yuanshi Tianzun, one of the highest gods, dispatches his two students, the jovial god Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) and the clearly-going-to-be-evil god Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei) to deal with the pearl. Ultimately, they can’t handle it, but Yuanshi Tianzun ends up separating the chaos pearl into two separate components, the good Spirit Pearl and the evil Demon Orb. He places a curse upon the Demon Orb, saying that it’ll be destroyed in three years, and tells Taiyi to take the spirit pearl to be placed within the third son of Li Jing (Chen Hao), a lord who governs the town that separates the Earth and demon realms, and his wife Lady Yin (Lu Qi). Unfortunately, Shen steals the spirit pearl and places the demon orb within the child, who is named Nezha (Lu Yanting). Nezha, the moment he’s born, quickly reveals his demonic nature and starts to destroy the town, but Taiyi puts a ring around his neck that keeps him restrained. Lady Yin and Li Jing work to raise the child to be more than his demonic nature, despite the fact that he will be destroyed by the curse when he turns three.
First off, yes, I’m aware Dragon Ball is based on “Journey to the West,” which is already a famous Chinese myth, so hold your damned comments about the title. Given that any connections to Chinese mythology ended before Dragon Ball and its sequel series started being the constant escalating fight sequences that we now know it for, I still think it’s an appropriate way to describe the film. A lot of this movie is a series of creative and somewhat comical fight scenes, which definitely feels like they’re inspired heavily by anime.
Second, I’m going to warn anyone that is not familiar with Chinese mythology or culture that this movie does a lot of stuff that seems random and unexplained. Considering I know nothing about it, this is sometimes how I felt. However, apparently everyone in the intended audience would have some level of understanding of how the Chinese gods behaved and also perhaps of the characters, which allows the film to skip over a lot of stuff. It’s like if you told an American audience “this guy’s Batman,” everyone would just know what that means. I was slightly annoyed at it in the beginning, but then I had to recognize that this movie was made in China for a Chinese audience and is derived from a story that is apparently well-known there, so I shouldn’t expect the film to cater to me. Then I realized that this must be how most other countries feel about most Hollywood releases and then I had a drink to contemplate how much the world was inherently centered around the US for most of the last century. Then I read a summary of the underlying story and most of the stuff made more sense. Even if you don’t do that, though, you can still follow the story.
As far as the actual movie goes, it’s honestly pretty good. The action sequences are solid, and sometimes pretty darn amusing, but they seem to mostly be in the movie to guarantee that it’ll keep kids amused. The best part, and the focus, of the movie is on Nezha and his family. Because he comes from a village, and a family, that focuses on eliminating demons, he is inherently distrusted by the people around him, which isn’t made better by the fact that he’s superhumanly strong and chaotic. However, the movie takes the time to make us really understand that he is still lonely and desires friendship and love just like a normal kid. We also see how much his parents are willing to work and sacrifice for him and you’ll have a distinct swelling of water in your eyes.
The animation is highly stylized, so it’s going to be a matter of taste as to whether you like it, but I will say that it was extremely smooth and versatile, able to do the serious and comic scenes with just a little bit of lighting and sound adjustment. I thought the fight scenes were well done and that they made a solid use of the animated medium, having a lot of imagery that would not have worked in a live-action film.
Overall, a pretty good movie. I can understand why it set a bunch of records in China, including a $728 million box office, given the level of spectacle combined with solid storytelling. If you don’t mind subtitles, give it a try.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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