** This is a user-submitted post by Jack Song. **
I wanted to take the time to share an animated film that I was very fond of as a kid in the 90s. Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King (also known as Nezha Conquers the Dragon King), a traditionally animated Chinese film made in 1976.
This film is a significant point in Chinese animation history, because during the period between 1950s to the 1970s, animated films were only state-sponsored by the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao considered it an extension of New China and thought it useful for creating propaganda between the 50s and 70s. Consequently the Cultural Revolution created a setback in the animation industry where artists were harassed and humiliated by the Red Guard, forcing many artists to quit becoming farmers or committing suicide. During this period, Japan’s animation industry would become the animation powerhouse of the east due to china’s halted progress. Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King was the first animated film to come out after the Culture Revolution by Shanghai Animation Film Studio, who would go on to produce over 200 animated films and shorts in the 80s.
What is most striking about this movie is not the quality of the animation, but rather the art direction and style. Like Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the film looks like a moving Chinese painting, from the brushstroke-like designs of the characters to the 2d spacing and composition they move within. The water and even the clouds have a stylish look and movement of a continuous roaring river rather than an ocean. Occasionally there are isometric views instead of continuous 2D landscape, which the characters move within. The style is unique and commonly used in animated retelling of famous stories like the “Journey to the West” and the “Romance of Three Kingdoms.”
The story is of the titular character, Nazhe, a prince born from a lotus flower who would go on to defy the dragon lords of the sea, who have been plaguing the prince’s kingdom with a drought causing a famine. The story moves at a fast rate establishing the odd tale with a small boy being born from lotus flower, a wise master who arrives on a cloud to name him and help him grow in size, and a dragon king with his taste for children’s flesh. Nazhe already is confident in his ability as he is given a large ring, a ribbon, and a deer that he rides. The story for which I will not give away the rest will be shocking to younger viewers. The climax in the middle is a logical and devastating conclusion to Nazhe’s proceeding actions with the dragon king. The aftermath follows how Nazhe was given his iconic look of riding flaming rings on his feet like a rollerblade allowing him to fly. Chinese mythology has its share’s of violent matters that younger viewers who are used to Disney sanitizing tales may find disturbing, including having children implied being eaten, limb and body fluid losses, and a devastating middle climax that is a powerful character defining moment that is the equivalent of both redemption and self defeat.
Prince Nezha’s Triumph Against Dragon King is a unique story to watch because it’s confident in the mythology and its characters, in addition to having a style that you can’t help but be swept up. It’s worth watching and thinking about what would have happened if Mao’s regime didn’t set back the entire industry and how that industry could have rivaled that of Japan’s. I guarantee after a swift hour, you will be curious to what other Chinese animated films are out there.