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Chinese Legend Becomes Animated Movie to Rival Hollywood

Chinese people born in the 1970s and early 1980s grew up with homemade animated movies like Uproar in Heaven, Nezha Conquers the Dragon King and Calabash Brothers.

Yet kids born in the late 1980s and 1990s know little about Chinese animated films and grew up instead with movies from Hollywood and Japan. Even Hua Mulan, the Chinese heroine, has been adapted into a Disney production.

But as three-dimensional (3D) computer-graphics develop rapidly in China and more and more adults turn to animated films, Chinese producers are using the original animated features to test the market's waters.

Wang Film Productions Co, the largest animation production firm in Taiwan Province, is one of these pioneers and is bringing its latest production The Fire Ball to Asia's screens this summer to compete with the DreamWorks production Madagascar.

The animated movie dubbed by a cast of hot movie stars and pop singers from the island province will be released in Beijing on August 5.

Many people have seen or heard of classic Disney animated films such as Snow White, The Lion King and Mulan, but few know that much of the work on these features was done by animation companies in Taiwan.

After producing animation for foreign companies for two decades, some local firms have decided to make their own films.

Wang Film Productions Co was a contracted firm supplying animation for Walt Disney Co on such classics as Pocahontas, The Little Mermaid and Mulan.

"Taiwan animation companies are traditionally good at hand-drawing movies. Advances in computer graphics, however, give us an opportunity to rethink our business model," said Wang Tung, director of The Fire Ball as well as general director of Wang Film Productions Co.

"Therefore, we've been trying to transform the company from a tool, which merely works on other people's scripts, to an independent producer, which comes up with original pieces of work."

Three years ago, the company raised US$5 million to invest in The Fire Ball.

"We Chinese animation companies must produce our own original movies if we want to survive in an industry that is moving towards more computer-generated graphics and fight against competition from other Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand, where the animation industry is growing," said Wang.

He explained that since a few Chinese directors and actors such as Ang Lee, Jackie Chan and John Woo have entered the mainstream US entertainment market, Western audiences have already been introduced to Chinese aesthetics such as martial arts, which makes Chinese products more marketable than they used to be.

Meanwhile, animation technology has been used widely in movies such as The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.

"Animated features are a trend. This is definitely the right time for us to take the lead in the industry in the Asian region," Wang said.

Adapted from the classic Chinese fantasy novel Journey to the West, The Fire Ball focuses on the duel between the Monkey King and Hong Hai'er, son of Princess Iron Fan whose fan is desperately needed to quench the blaze that surrounds Flaming Mountain, which stands in the way of the Monkey King and his master, the Tang Monk, in their journey to the West.

Director Wang gives interesting twists to the legend, approaching it in a contemporary way. He also has all the characters speaking as if they were around today.

"Good animated films require creativity and brilliant ideas, which are the lifeblood of the work and cannot be replaced by any form of technology. Therefore, we re-wrote the story, trying to make it meet the tastes of today's audiences and invited some movie stars and popular singers to dub the movie," said Wang.

"What's more, many traditional Chinese stories are not easily understood by non-Chinese audiences, but they are still inspiring and carry valuable messages that may be of interest to others. Thus, we have tried to intermingle traditional elements into a modern script."

The Fire Ball
is proving a successful example for Chinese animation companies, as a leading US animation firm has contacted Wang Film about buying the broadcasting rights to the movie in the United States.

"We believe the legendary characters of Journey to the West will be appealing to foreign audiences," the director said.

(China Daily July 28, 2005)

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