When Kung Fu Panda was released in 2008, many lamented China’s inability to produce a blockbuster animated film highlighting Chinese culture and mythology. Many blamed a lack of imagination; others said that Chinese creators and audiences were too enamored with Western themes.
Since then, the Chinese animation industry has grown dramatically thanks to more supportive government policies and the growth of online distribution channels. In 2014, the industry was worth more than RMB 100 billion compared to RMB 62.17 billion in 2011.
It has been a long road. From 1990 onwards, Chinese animation has traditionally targeted young children and been of low quality. (See: Tom and Jerry rip-off The 3000 Whys of Blue Cat.) In addition, the influx of well-funded Japanese and American TV series overshadowed local animation.
However, China has demonstrated its ability to produce domestic box office successes like 2015’s Monster Hunt (捉妖记) and Monkey King: Hero Is Back (西游记之大圣归来) – the highest-grossing domestic film and the highest-grossing animated film in Chinese history, respectively.
In recent years, the focus has shifted from importing high-quality animated films to exporting local animated films to overseas markets. In a bid to rival American giants like Pixar and DreamWorks, some Chinese animation studios have resorted to hiring foreign talent while others have developed original ideas with overseas producers or invested in projects that can be easily adapted for the Chinese market.
Enter Little Door Gods (小门神). Opening today, the animated feature is the first release from Light Chaser Animation (追光动画), a Beijing-based animation studio started by Tudou founder and ex-CEO Gary Wang in 2013.
Wang, who had no animation training or experience prior to Light Chaser, is also the film’s writer and director. His 80-member team on Little Door Gods included head of animation Colin Brady (formerly of Pixar) and visual effects supervisor Han Lei (formerly of DreamWorks).
The film’s budget is estimated at around USD 12 million; by comparison, the average Chinese animated feature has a budget of USD 1 million. Production on Little Door Gods lasted 29 months and the final version took more than 80 million render hours to complete.
In keeping with Wang’s background, the production of Little Door God employed a variety of new technologies. The Los Angeles-based Brady communicated with the Beijing team using a Double Telepresence Robot. The movie was created in Dolby Atmos surround sound, a first for a domestic Chinese production. Animators used a program called Shotgun to manage work flows – the same one used in the production of Frozen, Gravity, and Hugo.
But in the end, the only question that really matters is whether Little Door Gods is a good movie. The answer is yes, but it could be better.
Little Door Gods opens with the Pixar-like premise of an economic crisis in the spirit world, where various deities face unemployment because humans no longer believe in them. The plot revolves around brothers Shentu (神荼) and Yulei (郁垒), the titular door gods whose images people traditionally pasted on entryways to scare away evil spirits.
Faced with an uncertain future, Yulei hatches a misguided plan to awaken the Nian (年) – a mythical beast with the power to destroy the human and spirit worlds – in a bid to restore the gods’ relevance.
Shentu attempts to stop his brother with the help of a human girl called Yu’er (雨儿), who has her own problems. Yu’er struggles to make friends after relocating to an unspecified Chinese town with her mother to take over the family’s wonton restaurant.
Technically, Little Door Gods rivals works by Pixar and DreamWorks. Set pieces and nature scenes are gorgeously rendered, with life-like textures and vibrant colors.
It was refreshing to watch a homegrown movie making widespread use of Chinese culture and mythology. In one scene, Yulei breaks the first seal guarding the Nian, revealing a giant carp trapped at the bottom of a lake. Freed of its restraints, the carp swims up a waterfall and emerges a shining golden dragon. This is a reference to the Chinese proverb 鲤鱼跳龙门 (liyu tiao longmen) in which carp that brave adversity by scaling the Dragon’s Gate at the top of a waterfall are transformed into dragons.
Little Door Gods is at its best when lampooning aspects of modern Chinese society. Early in the movie, Shentu, Yulei, and several of their fellow deities are summoned to the Palace of Heaven. The game show-like host urges them to embrace the future and introduces the rebranded God of Wealth, who now wears full tuhao regalia and sits on a litter ringed with stock tickers. The gods are then forced to engage in group dancing and graded on their level of enthusiasm.
Anyone who has lived in China for a while will nod in recognition at the arbitrary rules imposed by the celestial bureaucracy, including mandatory "job retraining" sessions and midnight roll calls.
Other attempts to spoof Chinese archetypes were more opaque (at least to this Canadian reviewer), like the closeted, buttoned-up health inspector assigned to grade Yu’er and her mother’s restaurant. Speaking in dialect-accented Mandarin, he can be spotted at the local Halloween bash – itself a bewildering disco-inspired affair – in the guise of a pretty, pretty peacock.
Still, the major weaknesses of Little Door Gods were story and character development. Some scenes seemed shoehorned into the final product to showcase interesting camera angles or the studio’s technical capabilities. Secondary characters like the Goddess of Flowers make an appearance in key scenes and allude to some shared history with the main characters (in this case, chastising Yulei like a whiny girlfriend for not being career-focused enough), never to re-appear again.
For instance, very little screen time is given to developing Yu’er and her mother’s back story. Where is Yu’er’s father? Are there reasons beyond filial piety that made Yu’er’s mother decide to leave the big city and start over in their ancestral town? The beginning, in which Yu’er’s maternal grandmother is present for all of five minutes before dying and leaving them the restaurant, feels rushed and manipulative.
There were also some distracting continuity issues; for example, the canals in Yu’er’s town dry up after Yulei breaks the first seal guarding the Nian, but in later scenes the water levels are intact.
Nevertheless, Little Door Gods represents a major achievement for Chinese animation. Given more experience and refinement, it is entirely conceivable that domestic producers can one day rival the works of major players like Pixar and DreamWorks.
Children – particularly those with a solid grounding in Chinese language and culture – will enjoy the film’s breathtaking visuals and colorful cast of characters. Parents and guardians who don’t speak Chinese, rejoice; the film will be shown with both English and Chinese subtitles.
Little Door Gods opens today in theaters everywhere. In Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles.
Sijia Chen is a contributing editor at beijingkids and a freelance writer who has covered travel, tech, culture, parenting, and the environment. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Independent, the Beijinger, Midnight Poutine, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @sijiawrites or email her at email@example.com.
All graphics by Light Chaser Animation