By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
* Spoiler Alert
February 25th – Digital
March 3rd – Blu-ray
Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世) is Dragonball Z on steroids. This title is the name of a movie about a rascally young boy (voiced by Lü Yanting) who does not have the makings of the divinity Chinese people highly respect today. You don’t want to let him in your home just yet. He needs to earn his reputation. When the world is about immortals battling for positions of power–to be one of the 8 Golden Immortals–in Heaven, I question how easy life is in Ancient China when they live amongst humanity and the battles are fought on land than in the safety of the Aether.
This animation is laden with a lot of moments worthy of an Avengers: Age of Ultron, Infinity War and Endgame mashup dressed in oriental garb. It offers very little in the charm of extolling Eastern philosophies. Where this story shines is with the premise that destiny can be challenged and reshaped.
The antihero is born from a magical pearl created by the Primeval Lord of Heaven, Yuanshi Tianzun. Part of his personality is defined by the stone ‘implanted’ into the womb. He is one of two stones formed to contain the unwieldy; the other is grace. Ne Zha is born to mortal parents who are monster hunters who want to give him a positive, caring environment. Ao Bing (Han Mo), the son of a Dragon King, receives the same loving treatment, but is groomed for more–but there’s a catch: one must die so the other shall live in three years time. Interestingly, the boy cannot grow up while the other has to become a formidable young man to lead a revolution. The dragons in this world have been exiled.
Ne Zha has choices. The people of Chentang Pass decided long ago that having a demon child around is troublesome. They never gave him a chance and the boy does not have to behave like how everyone sees him as–a source of danger. Part of the film moves like Star Wars Episodes I to III. Can the tyke be more than what others fear? His spirit tainted by a demon pearl and his upbringing is akin to Superman’s. His parents give him all the care and love Jonathan and Martha Kent but yet, he behaves poorly. This story is a far better telling of Anakin’s Hero’s Journey. The setup during the end credits hints at another movie to continue Ne Zha’s tale, and we will see a transition.
The film is designed to appeal to ages 4 to 10 crowd than to be anything far more serious. They’ll laugh at the bit of toilet humour tossed in. As for whether Ne Zha can grow up, that’s left for later films to realize. The producers drew mostly from Fengshen Yanyi (封神演义) to recount his origins than Journey to the West (西遊記) where he had a brief appearance as a much older individual.
The choice to not heavily impart Taoist teachings in this work is not together unusual these days. When desire for action-heavy works outweighs imparting philosophy, making films the Marvel Entertainment way is not the direction I’d want. While this film is getting attention outside of China for this change in approach, I miss the Peking Style opera approach in Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King (哪吒闹海). It leaves me wondering about the impact Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger made. Although plenty of cultural notes remain, the fact this work has more of a ‘Western action film’ influence bothers me.
With this saga getting a sequel, at least I won’t mind if it goes Wrath of Kahn. It’s begging for it since the Dragon Lords live!
4 Stars out of 5