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While I have been praising the Chinese animation scene, let’s not forget that the country has had a very fruitful and bountiful scene for decades. It’s not like any of this is new. I know it feels new because of the recent smash hits like Nezha and White Snake, but their history of animation has been around for decades. They have even put out films from back in the day that matched Disney in animation quality. Heck, some of their work even succeeded it with how ambitious their use of watercolor was. Unfortunately, like with most animation history, there were times where the art and products became more propagandistic, and when Disney had their second wind in the 90s, something changed for the worst in Chinese animation. They found themselves crushed between powerhouses like Disney and the increasing popularity of animation from Japan. This led to a lot of lower-quality products and films that were trying to ape off of Disney and other companies. Luckily, with 2015’s The Monkey King: Hero is Back, the animation industry in China decided to bite back against the competition, and it has been putting out films with challenging art styles and distinct stories. This is where The Legend of Hei comes into play.
Directed by Mtjj, this 2D animated film is a prequel to the events that take place before the famous web series. It was shown off at Annecy 2020 Online in the Contrechamp section but lost. Luckily, it got pretty great reviews and was a financial hit in China. Another piece of good news is that the film itself while being at the New York International Children’s Film Festival, will be getting a US release thanks to Shout! Factory in May. So, does this film keep adding to the winning streak Chinese animation has been having? Well, let’s find out!
The story follows Hei, a small cat-like spirit that gets forced out of his forest home due to humans. After struggling to find a decent living situation, Hei is picked up by a group of spirits led by an individual named Stormend. After relaxing in his new home, Stormend and his gang are attacked by an individual known as Infinity. After the crew escapes, Hei is left behind with Infinity. Hei then makes a deal between him and Infinity to get off the island and find out where Hei belongs and what exactly is up with Stormend and his crew.
I think the coolest aspect about this being yet another film with the morality of humans vs nature commentary is how morally grey this film approaches those themes. I think the stigma of “people hate stories about saving the environment” is that people don’t hate these types of stories, but rather the problem comes down to how black and white they end up being. Yes, humans suck and big corporations are indeed killing our environments, but it always leads to an extremely boring story, which will make the always admirable message of “please for the love of everything, save our forests and oceans and stop killing the wildlife” fall flat due to how predictable the story is. With Hei, the story falls more in the middle. It’s not taking a side because both the humans and spirits with their actions are put under the microscope. It even has an overall hopeful message about the human’s relationship with nature with a few moments of cynical comments. It feels more realistic and will give you vibes with how Princess Mononoke handled its commentary of humans vs nature. Not every story needs to be morally grey or just one-sided, but it makes for a more interesting story when both sides are examined in detail. It all depends on how you execute the story that people won’t mind another story in this range. Luckily, there are strong character dynamics that also carry the themes and commentary. A lot of the film is spent with quiet montages between Hei and Infinity, and they are the two that carry the story. I love that we are seeing stories from China that are full of these strong character-building moments because you will even feel for Stormend and his plight.
The animation is gorgeous. This is some of the most fluid 2D animation I have seen from China. The designs are identifiable, they move with a good flow, and that leads to some extremely followable action sequences. I know it’s nothing new to see Chinese animated films have stellar action sequences, but boy howdy are these some of the most intense fights, and it does a great job of making you feel how heavy the strikes are. The music is also very beautiful with some tunes almost coming off like they were composed by Joe Hisaishi. If anyone is curious, there will be a sub and dub version available in May, but I saw the dub version at the New York International Children’s Film Festival. I adored the dub, and while I know there is some debate about how the dub changes the names of the characters, I am not here to talk about that. What I want to do is shout out the cast that includes Aleks Le, Howard Wang, Kaiji Tang, Caleb Yen, and Suzie Yeung.
I think my one real problem with this film is how many characters it introduces. I think they show off a few too many and while I get this is a prequel to the web series, they feel like they were placed there more for the fans, and unless you have seen the series, they are going to feel like a flavoring to spice up the world around the viewer. It still doesn’t make it any less awkward when they introduce a ton of new characters, but take it like the side characters you meet in films like Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. They don’t do much, but they make the world feel more complete. Still, they could have dialed it back at points.
Whether you are aware of the web series or if this is your first time jumping into the universe from which this film is set, The Legend of Hei is a fantastic thrill ride. It’s easily one of the best animated films of the year so far, and one of the best animated features that have come out of China. Like I said earlier, Shout! Factory is going to be releasing this film in May on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital, and if you are up for something a bit different, then you should check it out! Well, I need to take a break from festival films, and next time, I will be talking about another Netflix series. I can’t tell you which one, but you will have to find out in the future.
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Rating: Go See It!