The decline of hand-drawn animation has been extensively documented. Disney hasn’t produced a traditional animated film since 2009’s The Princess of the Frog. In a 2005 interview with The Guardian, the legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki seemed curiously resigned to the fate of his art:
"If it is a dying craft we can’t do anything about it. Civilization moves on. Where are all the fresco painters now? Where are the landscape artists? What are they doing now? The world is changing."
And yet, there’s so much to love in these old films. Lately, I’ve been craving the hand-drawn movies of my youth, especially those produced by Shanghai Animation Film Studio at the height of its powers in the 1960s. One in particular – Havoc in Heaven (1964), known as 大闹天宫 in Chinese – is worth tracking down for students of Chinese language and culture.
Based on the early chapters of the classic Journey to the West, Havoc in Heaven follows the adventures of Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) as he rebels against the Emperor of Heaven.
Production on the film began in 1941 but was interrupted by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The first part of Uproar in Heaven was completed in 1961 and the second part in 1964.
The characters and backdrops are beautifully rendered with sinewy lines and bold primary colors. As children, my sister and I were delighted with Sun Wukong’s sass and cunning; he seemed infinitely more resourceful and powerful than the protagonists in the other epics I devoured at the time, like The Odyssey.
Havoc in Heaven was our introduction to the many deities, immortals, and places that populate Chinese mythology, such as Flower and Fruit Mountain, the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea, the Jade Emperor, General Li, and Nezha. The Chinese was simple enough that we could piece together the plot, which Mom supplemented with explanations on the finer points of the mythology.
We ended up buying the English translation of the multi-volume Journey to the West a few years later and reading the whole thing in no time.
The 40th anniversary DVD, which brings together parts one and two on one disc, is available on Taobao for RMB 15 with simplified and traditional Chinese subtitles.
Havoc in Heaven is also available in comic book form, which young readers can use in their language learning. There’s a box set on Taobao for RMB 60 that includes Havoc in Heaven and other classics of Chinese film.
Sijia Chen is a contributing editor at beijingkids and a freelance writer specializing in parenting, education, travel, environment, and culture. Her work has appeared in The Independent, Midnight Poutine, Rover Arts, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @sijiawrites or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.