China's animation industry's domestic and global ambitions

By Tom Cunliffe
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, January 21, 2015
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China's film industry is developing by leaps and bounds but its animation industry has lagged behind. In 2014, Boonie Bears to the Rescue revealed the industry's huge growth potential. It grossed over $40 million making it the high grossing Chinese produced animation ever. This sparked a buzz at home and abroad within the film biz. However, other animated films like The Pleasant Goat, Big Wolf 6 and Balala the Fairy flopped. Some industry insiders worry that such failures reflect a lack of creativity, poor production talent and weak story lines. So what is the key to success or failure at the box office, and what kind of animated films does the Chinese market need?

China's film industry is developing by leaps and bounds but its animation industry has lagged behind. [Photo/] 


Animated films target different audiences in the US and China. Chinese animated features are made for young children but this focus on pre-schoolers hinders creativity, prevents the development of strong storylines, and fails to nurture technical expertise. In the US, Hollywood animators make films with content designed to appeal to both adults and children. This explains why at least 3 animated films a year make the box-office top ten in the US. So, China's animation industry needs to become more family oriented. Zhou Tiedong, president of the New Film Association,a Beijing based cinema management company, thinks good stories are essential to win bigger audiences.

The animation market in China has such vast potential for another reason too. China operates a foreign film quota system, which allows only 34 foreign films a year to be screened. So, if Chinese animated features can exploit this protected space, they can dominate the local market and use this as a launch pad to go global. George Wang, the founder of Tudou, opened a new animation studio called Light Chaser to capitalize on this opportunity. He hopes to turn this company into the Chinese equivalent of the US animation giant Pixar.

Local netizens and audiences have mocked some Chinese animated features including Legend of the Hero and Let the Panda Fly. Their crude and unrefined production techniques were singled out for special ridicule. Gu Song, one of the screenwriters of Pororo's Racing Adventure, thinks that technical quality is one of the most important aspects that determines the success or failure of an animated feature. Animation relies more on technical skills than perhaps any other type of film, so, even if the story is clever and well written, the key lies in enabling that imaginative power to burst into life on the screen.

Uproar in Heaven, made way back in 1965, is one of the most imaginative animated films ever created in China. It was massively popular with Chinese audiences. Perhaps this shows that, when looking for stories, producers and directors could think about drawing upon some of China's classical fantasy tales, whose content is naturally suited to animation. Uproar in Heaven is also representative of a tradition in animation that uses ink painting. This combines China's traditional style of painting and mixes it with animation technology. Since the release of Lotus Lamp, a 1999 animated feature, it seems as if the connection between China's animated films and traditional arts was lost. In many recent productions like Seer, and Kuiba, no traditional Chinese art is used, nor do they contain any ethnic style. According to an article on, if Chinese animated films want to gain prestige, they should have their own style and not simply imitate others.

A film called Da Hai is in production at the moment. It is being marketed as a film in which the viewer can "explore the true beauty of traditional Chinese culture" and it is based on a classical Chinese text written around 2000 years ago called Classics of Mountains and Seas. It contains geographical depictions of mountains and seas, as well as descriptions of medicines and animals, many of which are mythical or unusual. This is a good example of Chinese animation drawing on indigenous culture. Another animated feature film set for release in 2016 is Master Jiang and the Six Kingdoms. It is based on one of the major works of the shenguai (Gods and Demons genre) written during the Ming Dynasty in the 16th Century. It explains the origin of gods that existed in Chinese mythology up to that time. One look at the trailer confirms that it draws on Chinese culture and blends this with a Western fantasy-based aesthetic. Gods and monsters from traditional Chinese literature and beautiful mountainous areas, mingle with Lord of the Rings style dark fantasylands filled with lava and giants, as well as Dragon Ball Z style action.

The direction that Chinese animation seems to be moving in has a local and global appeal that combines Eastern and Western culture. Gary Wang's new Light Chaser Company wants to make computer-animated films with a "Chinese cultural touch". Most of the big new animation companies have set their sights on global, as well as domestic success, so they also need to appeal to different audiences. Kong, is a $40 million animated project that seems to embody this cultural mix. It is adapted from the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West (better known as Monkey to English audiences) and is based on the Monkey King legend, but it brings together robots and aliens to add a modern touch. Kong will be the first production of a new film company called Aquamen, financed by Robin Li, the chairman of Baidu. The big names becoming involved in Chinese animation reveal how seriously this sector is being taken. The company will be looking for an American director for Kong, and this is emblematic of the cultural blending and the global aspirations that many companies have for the industry. Hiring foreign expertise seems to be an important issue too, since the Chinese animation industry is still taking its first steps technology-wise. In 2012, two Chinese companies established a new venture with Walt Disney. Disney's involvement is supposed to help Chinese talent fulfil their potential and will offer expertise in various areas, including story writing and creative decisions. Animation certainly has the ability to travel more easily than live-action films, largely because dubbing into other languages is not such a big issue.

China's animation industry is clearly going to be big business in the very near future. The various developments outlined above will ensure success in local markets at least. As for Chinese animation finding global success? Only time will tell.

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