Last week, we reported that Nezha had become the highest-grossing animated feature in Chinese history in just seven days. Remarkably, the mythological cg epic performed even better in its second week, reaching 3.24 billion yuan ($459.6 million) as of Friday morning.
The film is now in the Chinese box office’s all-time top ten — movie ticketing app Maoyan forecasts that it will end its run in third place, with 4.47 billion yuan. That would place it ahead of every foreign feature ever released in China, including the all-conquering Avengers: Endgame.
Not bad for a film by an unknown director, from an unproven studio, in the midst of a box office slump. As The Hollywood Reporter has observed, Nezha was a long-gestating passion project for Yang Yu, a college dropout who spent years teaching himself animation in his mother’s home. In 2009, Yang, who goes by “Jiaozi” (Dumpling), released his first short See Through, which picked up a number of prizes on the international festival circuit. He went on to found his own studio and spent six years trying to get Nezha off the ground.
In 2015, Enlight Media stepped in. One of China’s largest private film companies, Enlight was looking to get into the animation game, and had recently launched a subsidiary, Coloroom Pictures, to oversee that push. Its CEO Yi Qiao was impresses with Yang’s work, and decided to offer him funding and technical support. He has told Chinese media that he was drawn to Yang’s “poverty and his crazy, single-minded passion for animation storytelling.”
The result, we now know, is a dark-horse mega-hit. China’s biggest ever animation (and its first to be made for IMAX) is not just a box office sensation — it has also garnered very high scores on review platforms, with many users praising its technical achievement. Enlight will be breathing a sigh of relief: in mid-July, just before Nezha’s release, it reported an alarming plunge in its profits, which it blamed on rising film costs and poorly performing releases. Over the past month, the company’s shares have climbed nearly 13%; it has acquired Yang’s studio.
How effectively will Coloroom parlay this success? It remains to be seen. Nezhadepends on familiarity with local legends, but may not have as much export potential. Then again, with a local market as large as China’s, exporting isn’t necessarily a factor. From its China release alone, Nezha is currently the 9th-biggest worldwide grosser of 2019, surpassing global totals for films like Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Alita: Battle Angel, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
In 2016, the company announced a slate of 22 animated features. While the fate of some of these projects remains unclear today, there’s no denying Enlight’s ambition. “Most Chinese animators have struggled for years,” said chairman Wang Chang-tian at the time. “I believe the improvement in the quality of domestic flicks will give us a Chinese answer to Pixar.” The answer may have already come in the form of Nezha.