Ever since Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck broke the Bamboo Curtain back in the day, China has been a prime target market for Western cartoon franchises – witness the runaway success of the Transformers and Kung Fu Panda I and II.
The ever-so-slightly controversial Spongebob Squarepants (a.k.a. 海绵宝宝）also ranks up there – after debuting on CCTV’s Children’s Channel in 2006, it’s been among China’s most popular cartoon imports, with an average audience exceeding 20 million (despite a ban by authorities on showing foreign cartoons between 5-9pm to protect China’s fledgling animation industry).
Said bans have done little to dissuade the local animation industry’s penchant for
copying "taking inspiration" from Western sources, and the latest attempt appears to be "Tofu Boy," the brainchild of the Dean of the Beijing Film Academy Sun Lijun who has reportedly taken inspiration from the story of Pinnochio with a Spongebob-like shell for the character and has big plans for an international release.
We’ll reserve judgment until we’ve actually seen the film but something tells me that unless you’re still wearing birkenstocks and have named your kids "Aurora" or "Gaia" the word "tofu" isn’t exactly going to appeal to your average North American 10-year-old.
Don’t get me wrong, if there is one industry/artform in which China can truly excel, it’s animation – crass shanzhai cartoon cash-ins aside, there are signs of real ingenuity and talent in China’s nascent industry and better quality animations and story lines are sure to come. There are also some excellent examples of classic Chinese animation from years past – particularly the fantastic Monkey King trilogy that was produced by the Shanghai Film Studio over the course of four decades:
Based on an episode in Journey to the West in which the Monkey King (Sun Wukong, 孙悟空) battles a "vengeful princess," Princess Iron Fan (Tie Shan Gong Zhu, 铁扇公主) was China’s first-ever animated feature film "directed in Shanghai under difficult conditions in the thick of World War II by Wan Guchan and Wan Laiming (the Wan brothers) and was released on January 1, 1941." Even back then the producers were taking cues from the West – the film was made after the brothers saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – but its own influence was pervasive nonetheless: Japanese manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka is said to have been inspired to become a comic artist after watching the film.
It wasn’t until over 20 years later that the studio was able to come out with the follow-up, Uproar in Heaven (Da Nao Tian Gong, 大鬧天宮), based on another episode in the novel in which Sun Wukong runs amok in the heavenly palace. According to LoveHKfilm.com:
A follow-up was planned, but a turbulent political climate in China delayed production on the film for more than two decades. The finished project, known as Uproar in Heaven, was developed in two parts. The first was completed in 1961, while the second part was finished in 1964. One year later, both portions were screened together as a single film. An amazing tour-de-force, Uproar in Heaven turned out to be well worth the wait, as it’s a certifiable animated classic sure to entertain viewers of all ages.
The Monkey King Conquers the Demon (金猴降妖), which came out in 1985, was the third and final installment and the only one of the series not to be produced by the Wan brothers (leading some to dismiss it as the weakest of the series). Hou Jiakang and Yu Miaoying’s musical score, nevertheless, is a fantastically eerie and haunting masterpiece, up there with any of Krysztof Komeda‘s soundtracks for Roman Polanski films.
Some of the scenes are a bit violent for younger children, but all three are worth watching (even sans kids) as prime examples of Chinese culture done right.