Animating a bright spot in the movie market
For most Chinese filmmakers, 2016 was a disappointing year.
The country’s once rapidly expanding movie market encountered an unprecedented slowdown. But animated features — the genre that was for a long time seen as children’s fare— provided a glimmer of hope in the chilly winter.
Latest figures show China’s 2016 box-office total was up just 3.73 percent from 2015, lower than the average year-on-year growth rate of over 30 percent between 2010 and 2015. Besides, seven months in 2016 saw negative growth compared with the same period a year earlier.
Bucking the trend, animated features grossed 6.54 billion yuan ($941 million) in 2016, up45 percent from 4.5 billion yuan in 2015.
Disney’s Zootopia topped the animated films’ box-office charts raking in 1.53 billion yuan, followed by DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda 3 at 1 billion yuan and Japanese hit Your Name at 569 million yuan.
An unexpected success in China, Zootopia thrilled local moviegoers with its skillful depiction of bias and distortion through an unlikely fairy tale. While children were happy with the cute animals and their anthropomorphic world, adult viewers got philosophical insights from the movie.
Chinese film-review forum Douban.com gave Zootopia 9.2 points out of 10.
With two other animated Disney films in the top 10 list — Finding Dory at eight andMoana at 10— the entertainment giant was the biggest winner in the world’s second-largest movie market.
Its powerful rival from Hollywood’s “Big Six” had one blockbuster in the 10 highest-grossing animated titles’ charts.
Sony Pictures had The Angry BirdsMovie, a cinematic adaptation of the namesake game series, in fifth place with 513 million yuan, while Ice Age: Collision Course took the sixth spot with 447 million yuan.
The last installment of the 14-year saga of prehistoric animals, Ice Age 5 resonated with Chinese fans thanks to the familiar characters. It was followed in seventh place by Universal Pictures’ The Secret Life of Pets at 390 million yuan.
Interestingly, both the overseas animal-themed films strategically used Chinese star power to expand their influence in China.
Ice Age 5 had threeMahua Funage comedians, Shen Teng, Ma Li and Chang Yuan, to dub its major roles, whileThe SecretLife ofPets surprised locals with the familiar voices of renowned host He Jiong and household-name comedian Chen Peisi.
Meanwhile, though China has a growing population of young people speaking English, theMandarin versions of foreign films still drawfamilies with young children.
And, here, Kung Fu Panda 3 stole the show. With one-third of its content crafted in China, the Sino-US coproduction had a very goodMandarin version. The characters’ mouths were reanimated so they didn’t seem off when speaking Chinese. The version cost a lot money and took a lot of time.
Separately, the past year also saw a breakout of Japanese imports.
Among the 11 Japanese released across China, nine animated productions.
Your Name, taking the third spot, was directed by Japan’s fast-rising animatorMakoto Shinkai.
While the rise of animated titles is a bright spot in the lacklusterChinese film market, it’s a bittersweet pill for homegrown animators.
While the films’ box-office performance shows that the country is increasingly interested in cartoons, it also indicates a big challenge from powerful foreign players.
Only two domestic films, Big Fish & Begonia and Boonie Bears III, were in the top 10 list, in the fourth titles were and ninth spots, respectively.
Big Fish & Begonia, rooted in Chinese mythology and inspired by ancient architecture, was at one time expected to repeat the success of the 2015 smash hit The Monkey King: Hero Is Back.
TheMonkeyKing thenwasa landmark in Chinese animated films. However, Big Fish & Begonia’s unconvincing characters and loose storyline got it only 6.5 on Douban. compared with 8.2 for The Monkey King.
As of now, most industry watchers believe Chinese animators have a long way to go.
“The past year has seen Chinese talent under a lot of pressure. Zootopia’s box-office earnings equalled 40 domestic animated films. It is a bit frustrating,” says Zhu Yuqing, an animated-film industry watcher and founder of the Beijing-based film company Online FilmMarket.
Cao Xiaohui, vice-president of the animation institute at the Beijing Film Academy, says Chinese animators should polish their storytelling skills and seek inspiration from their own backgrounds.
“The closer to real life the story is, the easier it is to resonate with local audiences. Chinese talent should shake off their tendency to imitate American and Japanese animators,” says Cao.
From left: Disney’s Zootopia, DreamWorks’ KungFuPanda3, Japanese hit YourName and domestic animated film BigFish&Begonia are among the top 10 of China’s 2016 box-office charts of animated films.