In a dystopian future China where an evil crime family control the water supply hot-headed young street racer Li Yunxiang (voiced by Yang Tianxiang) tries to take care of his family. During a violent run-in with Ao Bing, arrogant son of Boss De (Xuan Xiaoming), Yunxiang discovers he has awesome supernatural powers. Turns out he is the reincarnation of the Chinese mythological child god and defender of the downtrodden, Nezha. Filled with righteous fury, Yunxiang uses his newfound abilities to bring justice back to his city. Only to find that his crusade has wreaks tragic consequences for his loved ones.
Honestly, you wait ages for a computer animated Nezha movie then three arrive at once! Not to be confused with Ne Zha (2019) (China's industry-redefining top-grossing animated film of all time) or I Am Nezha (2016), Nezha Reborn (or New Gods: Nezha Reborn) is a conceptually audacious, visually spectacular part steam-punk, part cyberpunk fresh take on the titular Chinese mythological hero. Nezha (sometimes spelled Ne Zha or Na Cha) first appeared in the Ming dynasty era novel "Investiture of the Gods." His story was adapted into two different Shaw Brothers live action films: Na Cha and the Seven Devils (1971) and kung fu auteur Chang Cheh's Na Cha the Great (1974) where he was portrayed by superstar Alexander Fu Sheng. However for many Chinese viewers the definitive screen adaptation remains Nezha Conquers the Dragon (1979), widely considered one of the classic works of Chinese animation.
Sporting pleasingly expressive and distinctively Chinese character designs Nezha Reborn unfolds amidst a vividly realized world, mixing 1930s Shanghai with Mad Max style road warrior action. Rooted in traditional Chinese values the original Nezha story hinges on a clash between fiery idealistic youth and implacable paternal tradition. Here the filmmakers do a pretty nifty job refashioning the myth into a Marvel-like superhero story. Indeed the set-up draws extensively from the first wave of superhero films from two decades ago. Specifically Sam Raimi's original Spider-Man (2002). Eagle-eyed cineastes may recognize plot and visual motifs lifted from Iron Man (2008), John Wick (2014) and even Minions (2015) (background gags spotlight three adorably anthropomorphized little monkeys making mischief). Nonetheless these derivative elements are quite ingeniously integrated into a compelling story that swaps the original folk tale’s ideological clash for rumination upon the disparity between rich and poor. Alongside an interestingly ambiguous character arc that forces Li Yunxiang/Nezha to confront the consequences of his often impetuous actions and violent tendencies. On the downside the plot takes a while to get going and thereafter suffers from a weird tendency to hobble its own momentum, only sporadically kicking into high gear. Certain aspects of the story, calling Nezha's own rebellious streak into question, smack suspiciously of mainland Chinese censors trying to chasten anti-authoritarianism. Even so the drama remains engaging, even moving at times while the visuals prove nothing short of stunning. Sumptuously designed backgrounds, costumes and creatures all capture the unique atmosphere and bright coloured pageantry of Chinese fantasy. Lively and appealing with a shaky but still thought-provoking subtext, Nezha Reborn is a superior superhero romp.