China Box Office: 'Toy Story 4' Getting Crushed by Rerelease of Anime Classic 'Spirited Away'

Toy Story 4 -Publicity Still 4-H 2019
Walt Disney Studios

Japan's studio Ghibli has been rereleasing anime legend Hayao Miyazaki's classic works in China — which set up a surprise animation smackdown this weekend.

It's an animation smackdown for the ages.

Disney/Pixar's Toy Story 4 opened head-to-head against a rerelease of Hayao Miyazaki's Japanese anime classic Spirited Away in China on Friday — and by mid-afternoon in Beijing, the winner was already overwhelmingly apparent.

Disney's latest 3D animation juggernaut — produced for nearly $200 million — has proven no match for kindly old Miyazaki's hand-drawn coming-of-age classic from 2001.

Spirited Away had earned $4.7 million (RMB 32 million) as of 2 p.m. local time, compared to just $1.5 million (RMB 9.93 million) for Toy Story 4.

Both totals can be expected to climb considerably as the day progresses in China, but Toy Story's chances of overtaking Spirited Away look slim, given current screen share allocations, which are increasingly tilting towards the Japanese title in response to early demand.

So far, both titles also have stellar ratings on leading local film review site Douban — Spirited Away with 9.3/10 and Toy Story 4 with 9.1/10. 

Spirited Away is the latest success for Japanese Studio Ghibli, which has begun rereleasing Miyazaki's anime classics in the Chinese market. None of Miyazaki's films were distributed in China during the time of their original release, but decades of piracy has built a large and dedicated Miyazaki fan base in the Middle Kingdom. Japanese films have traditionally had difficulty gaining access to the Chinese market due to political tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, but a recent thaw in diplomatic relations has given Ghibli an opportunity to capitalize on its stellar back catalog.

Ghibli tested the waters last year with its first rerelease, bowing Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro (1993) in China in December. It earned a healthy $25.8 million, encouraging Ghibli to forge ahead with a Spirited Away rerelease in partnership with state-backed distributor China Film Group.

This weekend's Pixar-Ghibli battle in China would probably best be described as a competition between friends. Before his ouster from Disney/Pixar, studio founder and Toy Story franchise creator John Lasseter often spoke publicly about Pixar's creative debt to Miyazaki. During a visit to the Tokyo International Film Festival in 2014, Lasseter even said that a 1980s visit to Japan to meet Miyazaki led, indirectly, to the inspiration for the first Toy Story film. "Whenever we get stuck at Pixar or Disney, I put on a Miyazaki film sequence or two, just to get us inspired again," he said at the time.

The performance of Toy Story 4 in the always-quirky China market is unlikely to impact the movie's performance in North America, where it also opens this weekend. Analysts predict the film to debut in the $150 million-$200 million range stateside, one of the best openings of all time for an animated feature — not to mention one of the biggest launches of the year.