How Chinese Animation Film 'Ne Zha' Became a Surprise $400M-Plus Hit

Ne Zha Still 2 - 2019 H
Coloroom Studios

The film is the directorial debut of a self-taught college dropout, and it has almost singlehandedly turned around the finances of Beijing Enlight Media, one of China's biggest movie studios.

In the face of mounting competition, China's animated hit of the summer, Ne Zha, continues to do huge business.

The film, produced by Beijing Enlight's recently launched animation studio, roared past the $400 million mark at the China box office on Wednesday, earning $35.2 million and driving its total to $425 million after 13 days of release, according to analyst Artisan Gateway.

Ne Zha is now the biggest animated film ever in China by a wide margin, having overtaken Disney's Zootopia — which brought in a record $236 million in 2016 — early last weekend. Since Ne Zha's release on July 26, two strong competitors have hit the Chinese market — Bona's firefighter hero movie The Bravest on Aug. 1 (now with $125 million and counting) and Hong Kong action flick Line Walker 2 on Aug. 7 ($25 million after one day) — but Ne Zha has remained on top. 

The runaway success of Ne Zha represents a huge win for both Enlight and its director, Yang Yu, who made his feature debut with the project.

Yang, who goes by the nickname Jiaozi (which means "dumpling") has become an overnight celebrity and inspiration in China. The 38-year-old filmmaker dropped out of pharmacy school at Sichuan University — to the ire of his medical-doctor parents — with the long-shot dream of becoming an animator. He then reportedly spent three and half years holed up in his mother's home, studying animation techniques and technology, and developing his debut short, See Through. Released in 2009, the 16-minute pic earned rave reviews and numerous accolades, including the Berlin International Film Festival's special jury prize for shorts.

Boosted by that success, Yang then founded his own animation company in the Chinese city of Chengdu but spent the next six years toiling on his debut feature and struggling to find financing for the project — what would ultimately become Ne Zha. He was then approached by Coloroom Pictures, Enlight's startup animation subsidiary, with financing and technical support in 2015. Coloroom's CEO, Yi Qiao, has said in interviews with the Chinese media that he was attracted to Yang because of his "poverty and his crazy, single-minded passion for animation storytelling."  

Many have noted that Yang has channeled his unconventional sprit into Ne Zha, which is an innovative take on a well-known work of classical Chinese mythology, the Ming Dynasty-era text Fengshen Yanyi (also known as The Investiture of the Gods). Ne Zha, one of the work's heroes, has traditionally been portrayed as an attractive young figure in recent remakes, but Yang depicted his as a mischievous boy with cute and ugly features. He's positioned as a lovably defiant underdog character who has to overcome prejudice and his dark fate to become a hero.

"It would have been easy for our animators to paint a handsome face that the audience will like at first glance," Yang told Xinhua in an interview. "But we wanted a breakthrough and wished to convey a message that a person should not be judged by his or her look. Instead, it's the internal personality that decides who you are."

The Pixar-esque, nuanced approach to underdog heroism has clicked with the Chinese audience in a huge way, giving the film incredibly high social scores on leading review platforms, such as 9.7/10 on ticketing app Maoyan.

All this has proved profoundly good for Enlight, which absorbed Yang's startup animation studio into its operations. Just prior to Ne Zha's release, Enlight announced in mid-July that it expected its profit for the first half of 2019 to plunge 95 percent compared to the same period of 2018. The company attributed the steep slide to "an increase in film costs during the reporting period" and several underperforming releases, such as cult director Lou Ye's The Shadow Play, which brought in just $9.6 million, and On the Balcony, which starred Zhou Dongyu and earned $577,000.

Since the report, however, Enlight has released the two biggest local blockbusters of the summer: Ne Zha, at $425 million and counting, and family drama Looking Up, currently finishing its run with about $124 million.

In response to the company's box-office turnaround, Enlight's shares have climbed more than 16 percent on the Shenzhen stock exchange since mid-July.