Grade: B/B-
Not Rated (would be PG-13)
Animated fantasy-adventure

The ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang (light/dark, positive/negative) is at the heart of Ne Zha, an animated feature film from Chinese director Jiaozi that shuns the harsh angularity of anime in favor of the rounded contours that typically characterize western animation.

In fact, there are moments in this 3D computer animated fantasy when you might find yourself thinking of Disney’s more traditionally rendered Mulan, especially when a governor named Li Jing (Hao) is drawn in the same style as a younger version of Mulan’s father. The governor and Madam Yin (Qi) learn that the Primeval Lord of Heaven has decided that they will be the ones to raise one half two beings that came from the Heavenly Pearl. The other half is being raised and controlled by the Dragon King, who seems determined to prove that even the good offspring of the Primeval Lord of Heaven can be used for evil purposes.

But of the two, Nezha is the hellraiser. In fact, the full Chinese title of the film translates as “Birth of the demon child Nezha.” He’s like Dennis the Menace and Stitch rolled into one—a little fireball that his doting parents love, nonetheless, and want to protect. Because of his temperament and frankly evil laugh, he’s ostracized by his community, and probably justifiably so. I mean, he is prophesized to bring destruction to the world, so why would people cozy up to him? But eventually the community learns they have to count on him.

There are no anime-style shortcuts here, or deep-shadow chiaroscuro. The fully animated sequences are richly rendered, with some scenes as accomplished as anything you’ve seen. I’m thinking here of a scene where a giant umbilical cord of sorts contains a stream of water that’s flowing beneath its casing as the whole thing twists and turns. I’m thinking of a vast array of characters animated in a style that’s less harsh than typically seen in anime. Then again, this isn’t a Japanese film. It’s Chinese—the first Chinese produced animated feature to play IMAX theaters. Ne Zha has been well received both by critics and audiences, earning an Oscar selection as China’s entry for Best International Feature Film and becoming China’s highest grossing animated film.

In other words, this little devil of a film has made a pretty big splash, and the IMAX venue virtually affirms that it’s a treat to watch in HD on a big screen. There’s so much going on and at such a breakneck pace that it feels a bit like an animated version of a Marvel Universe film—and just as complicated—maybe unnecessarily so. Perhaps too much is dependent upon viewers’ knowledge of Chinese mythology, but the whole concept of the two halves of the Heavenly Pearl don’t seem as simple as yin and yang. We’re not sure exactly why the Primeval Lord of Heaven is putting these two “Pearl spawn” on Earth in the first place, why the delay before the pearls hit the fan, or what exactly the hopes and fears are for the future. There’s just this idea of looming destruction, unless something happens to change the course of destiny.

Like those Marvel Universe films, Ne Zha is full of jokes both crude and erudite, many of which allude to pop culture in China and also the western world, and many of which may fall a little flat if you’re not quick enough to pick up on them. There’s something a bit weird about watching a little demon of a guy complaining that he went to the “crapper” but forgot the toilet paper. Though obviously intended as scatological humor, it falls a little flat for western audiences because of the tone in which the line is delivered and the perpetually snarling expression.

But you’re not going to watch this film for the jokes or the plot that seems somehow familiar, despite the spin. You’re watching for the stunning animation and visual effects. The default for this Region 1 Blu-ray release is dubbed English—another testament to the movie’s anticipated popularity—so if you want to watch in the original Mandarin with English subtitles you need to select those options in set-up.

Entire family: No
Run time: 111 min., Color
Studio/distributor: Well Go USA
Aspect ratio: 16×9 widescreen
Featured audio: Dolby Atmos
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD
Amazon link

Not rated (would be PG-13 for some language, rude humor, and fantasy violence)

Language: 4/10—Very mild compared to most PG-13 films, so that you really notice when a word like “crapper” is used

Sex: 0/10—Nothing here

Violence: 3/10—Pretty tame, with battles more about flashing lights than spilling blood 

Adult situations: 4/10—One character is shown drunk, and others drink, but not often

Takeaway: If this story had been a little less confusing and a little more original, it would have risen to the level of its pretty accomplished animation