Friday, April 13, 2012

China's Getting Animated

My experience with Chinese produced animated films is quite limited. I've seen exactly two features, both screened at the 2004 Anime Expo in Anaheim. One was "Master Q: Incredible Pet Detective," following the comic adventures of the manwha character Old Master Q. The other was "The Butterfly Lovers," a period fable with character designs that looked like they'd been lifted wholesale from "Mulan." Both were pretty awful and derivative, but there was clearly a lot of ambition behind them. In China's never-ending quest for greater cultural relevance, they've long recognized that animation can be an important medium. The most profitable category of American films in the last decade has been its animated children's films, which bring in staggering revenue at the worldwide box office. Anime from neighboring Japan is more of an acquired taste, but viewed and adored by fans from all over the globe. Most importantly, Western and Japanese animation does very well in China, and the Chinese are itching to break into the market themselves. Last year, a massive new animation studio was announced by the Chinese authorities, being built for the explicit purpose of competing with Western toons.

Historically, there have been some influential Chinese animated films, like "Princess Iron Fan" (1941) and "Havoc in Heaven" (1961), from the Wan brothers. Unfortunately the political climate in China made all filmmaking difficult for decades, and animated films have been rarities. This has put Chinese animation far, far behind other countries. There have been some gains in recent years, with reports of interesting films coming out of Hong Kong and Shanghai, but these have been very low profile. So, the latest tactic has been to recruit help from bigger players. The "Kung Fu Panda" movies have been hugely popular in China, and it's no surprise that Dreamworks Animation announced a joint venture with China Media Capital to form Oriental Dreamworks back in February. They'll be producing family friendly live action and animated content geared toward Chinese audiences. Dreamworks Animation had a rough 2011, losing over 40% of its market value after films like "Puss in Boots" flopped, so this is a good opportunity for them. Then on Tuesday, per Deadline, the Walt Disney Company announced it had "entered a partnership with the culture ministry and Chinese internet giant Tencent to develop the country’s animation business." And as a bonus, a new Shanghai Disneyland has just been approved for construction.

This could end up playing out in a couple of ways. Chinese animation hopefuls would do well to remember what happened in South Korea when it opened dozens of animation studios in the 80s and 90s and the United States and Japan farmed out large amounts of labor-intensive animation work to them. Any kid who watched cartoons in that era should remember the prominent lists of Korean names at the end of every episode. It's become a running joke that many popular American cartoons like "The Simpsons" and "Futurama" depend on Korean animators, toiling over endless drawings, often in substandard working conditions. And it's rare that you see Korean talent making any major contributions to the writing, planning, direction, or design of the Western projects they work on. But hasn't all of this helped South Korean produced animation? Not really. Like in China, major South Korean animated projects have been few and far between, and they haven't gained much international attention. However, of the few titles I've seen like 2003's "Oseam" and "Sky Blue," the Koreans have the potential to do much bigger things, and they'rein a better position than the Chinese are on the creative front.

That's the biggest problem I see with Chinese animation. I think they're going to make sure they have far more opportunities to turn out animation that reflects their own sensibilities, and working closely with the major American studios will certainly help them to avoid becoming simply another cheap outsourcing destination. I definitely see the Chinese benefiting on the technological side. However, that's only one part of what makes modern animated cartoons so successful. Originality, creativity and innovation are going to be the biggest stumbling blocks. China may have lots of eager young animators, but the rigidity and the formalism of their learning system, plus the the heavy cultural politics, plus the constant concerns about censorship and staying on message do not add up to a good atmosphere for creating silly, loveable cartoons like "Kung Fu Panda." The Chinese don't need Disney and Dreamworks to help them figure out how to make their CGI look better. They need them to explain the value of absurdity and the business of caricature and that first and foremost a cartoon needs to be entertaining and tell a good story.

I'd love to see them succeed. I really would. Another thriving Asian animation center would be wonderful to have. However, at the same time I don't relish another propaganda-driven arm of the current mainland Chinese film industry, turning out the cookie-cutter morality tales their government likes so much. And frankly, they'd all be a bust commercially. Animated films have to cater to a very tough audience: small children. The kids will pick silly, fun, wild, and crazy over ideologically pure any day. And at the end of the day, even in China, I'm willing to bet the adults will too.

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