Can you choose who you are, or is your identity constructed by accidents of birth and the society all around you? It’s a complicated question and even more so if you happen to have been born part demon thanks to a cosmological mixup. An origin movie of sorts for the titular hero familiar to most from classical Chinese folklore, Ne Zha (哪吒之魔童降世, Nézhā zhī Mótóng Jiàngshì) asks just that through the story of an extremely naughty, all powerful little boy who might be evil or just misunderstood and resentfully lonely because of the prejudice held against him by those fearful of his differences.
The trouble begins with the Chaos Pill which can pull power from sun and moon equally, threatening the integrity of the universe itself. Thankfully, the Heavenly King manages to split it into the Demon Pill and the Spirit Pill, enclosing both inside a lotus flower. He intends to send the Spirit Pill into the third son of general Li Jing (Chen Hao) and has put a curse on the Demon Pill so that it will be destroyed by lightening in three years’ time. Predictably nothing goes to plan because drunken deity Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) fails to stop the evil Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei) sending his minions in to steal the Spirit Pill and use it for his own ends. The Demon Pill ends up in the son of Li Jing, Ne Zha (Lü Yanting), who emerges from his mother’s womb as a bouncing ball of flesh before transforming himself into a small boy and proceeding to wreak havoc all over town.
Doting parents Li Jing and Madam Yin (Lü Qi) refuse to believe their son is all “bad” but recognise that they have a duty to the townspeople who are quickly fed up with Ne Zha’s antics and traumatised by years of being terrorised by “demons”. They would rather do away with the irascible little rascal, but could it be that he’s just bored and lonely? Given the increased demon threat, Madam Yin is often away slaying things and regrets she doesn’t have more time for her son while the other kids are afraid of him, both for quite rational reasons and also because his main way of making friends is quite mean. Increasingly resentful at being shunned as a “demon”, Ne Zha strikes back at the villagers in ways which are really just naughty rather than actually “evil” but obviously aren’t going to win him any friends.
Having failed to get help from the Heavenly Father who has predictably waltzed off for a bit as gods seem to do anytime there’s an actual problem in the mortal realm that they probably caused through inefficient planning, Li Jing decides to lie to his son that he’s really the Spirit Pill and has a duty to slay demons and help mankind. The deception begins to work. Imprisoned in a painting where Zhenren tries to teach him useful magic, Ne Zha takes his new responsibilities seriously, eventually escaping and trying to rescue a little girl who has been kidnapped by a water troll. Sadly, he goes about it all wrong and the townspeople embrace their prejudice to jump to the conclusion that he kidnapped the kid himself and has become even more dangerous.
Meanwhile, evil Shen Gongbao faces a similar problem as a deity shunned because he’s jaguar spirit who took human form. Allying with the villainous Dragons who have been given an ironic punishment to run a prison from which they can’t escape either, he gives the Spirit Pill to their bright hope Ao Bing (Han Mo) who, mirroring Ne Zha, struggles to accept his “evil” parentage and continues to do good and noble things behind his parents’ backs. Meeting by chance, the pair became friends but inevitably have to do battle before realising that they are two halves of one whole and thus represent a kind of salvation in linking hands rather than raising them.
Ao Bing, despite himself, is the more filial in that he thinks he has to accept the “destiny” his parents have given him as a liberator even if he doesn’t quite agree with their methods or reasoning. Ne Zha, by contrast, concludes that his fate is to resist his fate. He might not win, but he’ll fight it all the way and decide for himself who he is rather than allowing others to tell him. Genuinely funny, filled with amusing gags, and packed full of heart, Ne Zha is a gorgeously animated family fantasy and an impassioned advocation for living by your own principles while refusing to be bound by the unsolicited opinions of others.
Currently on limited cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia in the UK, and Well Go in the US.
Original trailer (English subtitles)