If the opening credits are anything to go by, this project took a LOT of work. Studio after studio flashed their vanity intros across the screen, but the most significant contributor is clearly Coloroom Pictures.
Initially bought over by Beijing Enlight Pictures to establish themselves as a Chinese animation powerhouse on par with Disney’s Pixar and DreamWorks, the crew produced box office receipts that went beyond even their talented imagination.
The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Ne Zha, the studio’s 2019 previous effort, smashed records by a wide margin, raking in $425 million in the first 13 days of release. Disney’s Zootopia previous record, in comparison, was only $236 million. Needless to say, Jiang Zi Ya: Legend of Diefication has big shoes to fill.
From the trailer alone, this sequel piece to Ne Zha has yet again the renderings animation equal to the giants. But then Covid-19 happened, and the Chinese Spring Festival release ground to a halt. It is now finally telling its tale this October.
Similar to many film studios over the last decade, Enlight is beginning to build a universe populated by Chinese lore – which is quite the trove. Jiang Zi Ya is based on the Ming Dynasty novel Investiture of the Gods, and illustrates the concept of compassion above justice. And this it does beautifully.
Visually stunning with epic settings, Jiang Zi Ya continues to showcase the potential of the Chinese creatives through glorious depictions. While it doesn’t stray as far as it wants to, trying to differentiate itself from Hollywood and Japanese animation, there is enough material here for them to call it their own.
The legacy of Chinese folklore is extensive and rich, often layered with centuries of philosophy and ethics that fuels mature storytelling. Though Jiang Zi Ya over-simplifies the concept here for me, the story here makes better sense for a mainstream capture and yet remains engaging enough for a global audience. Admittedly, I would have enjoyed more injection of poetic segments like the bone chimes, but I’m grateful that there’s enough here to move the story forward sensibly, as opposed to productions which script motivations through loosely-chained visual ideas alone.
But yes, you’ll see a little of Pixar’s style of character design and delivery, or the format and sequences of Japanese anime coming through, and even in some close-up scenes, eerie parallels reminiscent of Blizzard’s signature textural scenes. Jiang Zi Ya’s influence from its creators (who have worked on Disney projects and cited Hayao Miyazaki as inspiration) can be a point of contention for some, but calling it a copy would be a disservice. The skill here is undeniable, and the flair of Chinese culture translates well in animation, delicious in its details. The opening sequence in 2D is especially stylistic and riveting, and scenic displays with generous scale suits the divine story.
This journey of a disciple that challenges the heavenly immortals does however have some distractions. The discrepancy in attention to detail and style can make certain scenes feel unfinished, such as the ones where the characters move over landscapes and no footprints are seen. The editing too can sometimes be too snappy for one to make sense.
The characters in their reactions too are odd at times, and can benefit from better depth – especially in the case of the rogue girl Xiao Jiu and the fox spirit. A villain needs to move beyond just how fast they move the body count. And my own pet peeve is probably China’s new tendency to insert a cutesy sidekick in every flick, often serving as nothing more than an emotional plug with their beeps and boops. Some restraint here would be nice.
To graduate from pure visual excellence to global success, Enlight has to realise they need to move past the showy visuals and produce stories and personalities that truly captivate. But when it comes to pure wizardry in the animation skills themselves, it’s safe to say they have ascended.
Hands-down a visual success, delivering opulent scenes and a good protagonist. Could bear better support from the rest of the cast though.
First published: www.movieXclusive