Directors – Wang Shuchen, Yan Dingxian, Xu Jingda – 1979 – China – Cert. N/C PG – 61m
A boy born out of a lotus flower must defeat the dragon king who enjoys eating live human children – available to rent online in the UK & Ireland as part of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Retro in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021 from Friday, February 12th to Wednesday, May 12th
The four dragons rise out of the sea to wreak havoc with fire and tornado over China. In his palace, General Li awaits news of his wife’s delivery. Is it a boy or a girl? His servant is unsure: after three years, the General’s wife has birthed… a lotus flower. The petals open to reveal a boy, already walking, of diminutive size. The General’s servants and his wife’s ladies in waiting are immediately entranced and an old sage Taiyi Zhenren flies in on a crane to name the boy Ne Zha and take him under his wing as a student.
After the local people anger the Dragon King Ao Guang in his undersea crystal palace by sending him food offerings when he’d rather eat live human children, the boy happens to saunter down to the beach for a swim just as Ao Guang’s Sea Warrior has arrived to abduct some tasty boys and girls and steals one of Ne Zha’s playmates. The boy promptly battles and bests him, then does the same to the Ao Guang’s third son Ao Bing, removing the latter’s spinal cord as a souvenir.
The General is furious that they boy has defied the Will Of Heaven and uses the dragon spine to lash him to a pillar. Thus, the boy is unable to see Ao Guang off when the Dragon King turns up to take it out on the General until the General’s servant frees the boy. Ao Guang does not fare well and threatens to report the incident to the Jade Emperor in Heaven. On the advice of his master, the boy confronts Ao Guang in Heaven and rides his dragon body like a horse-rider.
As the dragons unleash thunder and snow upon the General’s palace, Ne Zha cuts his own throat with the general’s sword only to be later resurrected from another magical lotus flower by his master to fly down to the crystal palace and defeat the Dragon King, his hordes of underwater minions and his dragon brothers once and for all.
Two elements really impress. The first is the script and the second the visual design and sheer artistry of the piece.
The script represents a commendable simplicity and streamlining of ideas (in marked contrast to the same studio’s later muddled and unfocused Lotus Lantern, Chang Gwang Xi, 1999) which allows the animators to go off on various flights of fancy without detracting from the whole or interrupting the narrative flow. Such scenes include the newborn boy dancing around and entertaining everybody or playing alone later on. Editing and pacing hung on this well crafted script likewise serve to present an original, coherent vision.
Having made the piece work at the script level allows the numerous artists and designers to add in any number of clever and appropriate visual devices to delight the eye. The surface of the sea is made up of simple, curving linear patterns, for example. The dragons alternate between appearing like men with dragon heads in traditional costume and, when they discard their clothing to fly or generally wreak havoc, creatures whose legged, snake-like bodies swirl through the heavens in the way you would expect Chinese dragons to do. During one of Ne Zha’s fights with a dragon, he uses a phoenix bird against it which simply absorbs the fire it breathes at him.
Among the Dragon King’s numerous minions – mostly musicians who perform lots of celebratory pieces of traditional Chinese music – are crustaceans and crabs who may well have been a major influence on Sebastian the hermit crab in Disney’s The Little Mermaid (John Musker, Ron Clements, 1989). Nezha in some ways is like a more focused version of the Shanghai Studio’s own, earlier The Monkey King: Havoc In Heaven (Wan Laiming, Cheng Tang, 1961, 1964), but it’s both original enough and sufficiently different from the earlier film to feel quite distinctive in its own right.
The satisfying plot is, at the most fundamental level, about challenging unjust authority. When he doesn’t get live human children to eat, the Dragon King although clearly out of order sees eating human offspring as a basic right and when this right is denied him decides to protest to the powers that be in the form of the Jade Emperor in Heaven. The mortal and cowardly General Li, part of the social fabric underpinning this overall power structure, refuses to challenge it and goes along with the Dragon King regardless of the detrimental effect it will have on ordinary people and, frankly, not caring as long as he can maintain his position. It’s up to Ne Zha to challenge this state of affairs and see that ordinary people at the bottom of the social order are treated fairly and justly, regardless of how those higher up the social scale think they can take advantage of the existing order to serve their own selfish ends.
In short, this animated feature is one of the jewels in the crown of the Shanghai Animation Studio.
NB The current, specially redone subtitles contain a couple of uses of the word “bastard” (to mean something like, “unruly child”), which seems a little extreme for a PG. This is such a wonderful film that I would have no qualms about letting children watch it, though, even given this minor gaffe.
Nezha Conquers The Dragon King is available to rent online in the UK & Ireland as part of the Shanghai Animation Film Studio Retro in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021 from Friday, February 12th to Wednesday, May 12th.