By Hui YAN
Chen Shaopeng’s recent publication The New Generation in Chinese Animation is based on his PhD dissertation, which Isabel Galway kindly reviewed in 2018. His book follows the general layout of the dissertation. The first chapter, the introduction, provides the historical background of NGCCA, the acronym for “New Generation of Chinese Cinematic Animation” — a term coined by Chen to describe animation produced between 1995 and 2015. During this period, Chinese animation gradually transitioned from a state enterprise to a market-oriented industry, especially after 2004 when SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television) publicly encouraged private capital to produce animation. Chen argues that NGCCA films are simultaneously products made for profit and creative works that strive for artistic merit. The subsequent four chapters are case studies, each of which offers an analysis of specific NGCCA films. Attesting to Chen’s central thesis, the case studies are formed by two parts: 1) analysis from an industry perspective that emphasizes marketing strategies; 2) focus on the aesthetic elements of individual films, mainly from textual and formalist analysis of the narrative. In 2006, SARFT limited the appearance of foreign televised animation series on children’s channels during primetime to provide favorable viewing conditions for indigenous productions. Nevertheless, NGCCA films still reveal foreign influences as Chen considers them to be “a form of cultural hybridity [that] intertwines the traditional and the modern, the domestic (film art film, folk literature, etc.) and the exotic (mainly coming from their Japanese and American counterparts)” (31). Overall, the book highlights the importance of this twenty-year transition period when Chinese animation ceased to be seen as fine art films, and instead as entertainment products produced by a booming industry.
The next four chapters focus on case studies. In Chapter 2, which centers on Lotus Lantern, Chen establishes the film as the “first attempt at ‘blockbuster’ Chinese cinema animation” (38). No longer under strict state production and needing to compete with foreign films, Lotus Lantern demonstrates dual characteristics that exemplify it as a product of the transition period. The film, under the direction of Shanghai Animation Film Studio (SAFS), is the first feature-length film since the studio’s reform in 1995. Executive vice-director Jin Guoping conceived of the film as a “Gift Film” since its screening coincided with the fiftieth anniversary of the PRC. Having witnessed the success of The Lion King, SAFS imported Hollywood production strategies, such as pre-recorded dialogue and an all-star voice cast, and introduced of digital visual effects. Then, Chen analyzes the character development of Sun Wukong in Lotus Lantern and compares this Chinese production to the more favorable and mature Disney film The Lion King. While Chen appreciates the Lotus Lantern’s effort in experimenting towards an audience-conscious direction in commercial animation and its role in opening the era of NGCCA, Chen considers the formation of the protagonist Cheng Xiang unnatural, especially in the juxtaposition of Simba the lion from The Lion King. In other words, Chen argues that Cheng Xiang is still trapped in the “little warrior” stereotype that commonly characterizes the protagonists in past state-produced animation. They are role models for children, whom the state considers to be the primary audience of animation.
The third and fourth chapters serve as a comparison of two types of animation films that emerged between 1995 and 2015, derivative vs. original. Derivative films, as the name emphasizes, are those produced as an extension of a televised animation series. Original films, by contrast, do not have a pre-established worldview or an audience fan base to rely on. While original films show the industry’s willingness to take creative risks and gain audience approval, they only earn a small portion of the revenue of derivative films, and such small revenue certainly cannot cover the cost of production. Chapter 3 focuses on the two derivative films of the Boonie Bears franchise: To the Rescue (2014) and Mystical Winter (2015). Building on the success of the television series, the two feature-length films performed well at the box office. The production company Huaqiang Digital Animation employs well-planned promotion campaigns, such as extensive advertisements on children’s channels, off-line advance screening and etc. to ensure the films’ financial success. To win parental approval and maintain the derivative films’ cross-generational appeal, Huaqiang modified the language and visual representation of violence on screen. Overall, Chen shows that the Boonie Bear derivative films are simply an extension of the franchise, already adept at marketing products, including theme park Fantawild, to its target audience. In contrast, the fourth chapter focuses on the Kuiba series, which Chen considers to be the Chinese animation industry’s first attempt to construct a high-fantasy fictional universe. While the Kuiba films were praised by critics and audiences for originality, the production company Vasoon’s lack of experience in promotion and the absence of a pre-existing fan base caused the films to be box-office flops. The script and the naming strategy of the Kuiba films also contributed to its financial failure. As a result, the series, originally planned to be a five-part installation, has so far only realized the first three films. Chen then analyzes the Japanese influence in artistic style and the Chinese traditional culture in the construction of worldview, emphasizing Kuiba as a hybrid product.
Chapter five examines the phenomenal success of the blockbuster film Monkey King: Hero is Back. Chen attributes the success to word-of-mouth communication strategies, which rely on major social media platforms such as WeChat and Weibo. While the famous Monkey King is the protagonist of Hero is Back, the film reinvents the character and the narrative of the familiar tale Journey to the West. No longer the almighty hero full of capabilities in past storytelling, this Monkey King, according to Chen, is an antihero with which the audience can sympathize. Hero is Back marks the temporary endpoint of NGCCA as it steps into a new era of producing high-quality animation films also highly competitive on the market. To Chen, derivative and original films are trial products that eventually pave the way for the rise/renaissance of Chinese Cinematic Animation, exemplified by the triumph of Hero is Back, which succeeded both in box-office revenue and audience feedback. Together these case studies selected by Chen recount a cyclical/revival narrative of NGCCA, which is often the same narrative that permeates Chinese online discussions as netizens lament the golden era of animation in the past and the current wave of National Animation’s (guoman) effort to catch up with Hollywood or Japanese productions.
The case studies are exhaustively analyzed both from a content and industry perspective and are accompanied by extensive data. Yet, the méticulosité of analysis seems to overshadow a coherent theme. One gets the impression that the commercial performance of certain films is largely dependent on the strategy and experience of the production companies. Occasionally Chen hints at a change in the target audience of the animation films or a shift in the role of animation, from educating children to providing entertainment. In the section “child-oriented trend” in the introduction, Chen points out this dilemma faced by animators. When analyzing Kuiba as a box-office flop, Chen briefly brings up that the film’s promotional venue did not reach the target audience — young adults. Yet, how the change in viewership occurs in the twenty-year period of the rise of NGCCA is left as a given fact without further analysis. Similarly, the problem of nationalization is also staged in the introduction but seems to remain unaddressed in the subsequent chapters. Whether Chinese animation needs a nationalized style and whether films could still become a success without rewriting traditional narratives are still unresolved issues faced by this generation of animators, as they often promote their works as part of the campaign to support the nation against the invasion of foreign entertainment products. Chen’s analysis of the aesthetic dimension of films orients around the plot. Those who are interested in the technical development of the Chinese animation industry, such as the transition from the 2D utilized in Kuiba to the current 3D trend, might be disappointed. The paucity of first-hand material or interviews also seems puzzling for a book whose period of research falls between 1995 and 2015, considering that the animators of these early 2010 films still constitute the principal force of the industry. Overall, Chen’s book is comprehensive and thorough with data and details.
Hui YAN received her M.A. degree in Chinese Culture from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Prior to her time at HKUST, she studied Western Intellectual History 1300-1650 at Warburg Institute in London and graduated from Smith College with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy, and a concentration in Museum Studies. Her most recent project is a presentation entitled “Individual Fortune and Fate of the State” given at the conference “Warburg in China”, in which she explores the iconographic dimension and provides a possible narrative for panel 70 of the enigmatic Mnemosyne atlas — a collection of images assembled by the great German 20th century art historian Aby Warburg.