Bear with me: I am about to attempt to describe the plot of a cartoon, which is deceptively hard work.
A chaos pearl, birthed from primordial essences, manifests as a giant crystal monster, is sucking up energy to feed its seemingly infinite potential for destruction. The Primeval Lord of Heaven, Tianzun, sends two of his disciples, Taiyi and Shen, to subdue it, but it just keeps siphoning energy, growing bigger and stronger, so the Primeval Lord Tianzun has to separate the pearl into two opposite components: a spirit pearl and a demon orb. The spirit pearl is meant to be reincarnated as a son to Li Jing, while Tianzun curses the demon orb; it will be destroyed in 3 years’ time by a powerful lightning strike. Tianzun gives them to the care of Taiyi and promises him a seat at his heavenly table if he performs well. This makes Shen insanely jealous of course, so he steals the spirit pearl, which means that Li Jing’s pregnant wife Lady Yin is possessed by the demon orb instead. Poor Lady Yin has been pregnant for 3 years and now gives birth to a demon child, Ne Zha.
If you’re following even 25% of what I’m saying, you deserve a silver medal (sorry, I’m reserving the gold for Lady Yin’s marathon pregnancy).
Ne Zha is born with unique powers, as you might expect, and he’s known (and feared) in the village as being incredibly destructive, which makes him a lonely outcast. Taiyi brings him to a universe inside a painting to train him and his progress is astounding, even if his discipline is lacking (note: this is an extremely advanced toddler). Meanwhile, Shen takes the stolen spirit pearl down to the Dragon King. The dragons are angry because they’ve been banished underwater as hell’s gatekeepers. The Dragon King believes that a son of his born of the spirit pearl would mean dragons would finally be worthy and could ascend to heaven, so he gives birth to an egg OUT OF HIS MOUTH and names the kid Ao Bing.
Against the odds, Ne Zha and Ao Bing meet and make friends, but as we know, they’re actually enemies, and they’re going to have to meet in battle on their third birthdays.
Written and directed by Yu Yang, the movie starts out with some shaky story-telling, and as you can tell by my synopsis, there’s quite a bit of vital information to parse rather quickly (we had to pause the movie, compare notes, and restart). Once it gets going, the problems get largely ironed out by some pretty compelling animation. The action scenes are of course commendable but I was also rather dazzled by the universe contained within the painting. Yu Yang takes full advantage of the perks of animation, allowing bold action sequences to communicate character, engaging the audience and fueling the film’s momentum. Kids will delight in the low-brow humour (and by low-brow I of course mean disgusting) and everyone can appreciate the visual spectacle of it all.
In China it was released exclusively in IMAX 3-D and I can imagine this would have been an excellent use of the medium. We watched the English dub on Netflix (we also had the subtitles on, which made for a mind-bending exercise as the two NEVER matched); if you do the same, make sure to check out mid- and post-credit scenes which introduce a new character and set up a sequel. The sequel was actually due to be released January 2020 in China but was postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.