Year by year, we continue to witness an increasingly staggering rollout of animated films. From a critical perspective, their quality ranges from mediocre to iconic. But the consistent visual standard of Hollywood animated production has proven difficult to match — China, the world’s fastest expanding film market, has been trying to edge its way in for years without much success.
Homegrown animated efforts have always turned out subpar. Either in production value (the heavily hyped L.O.R.D: Legends of Ravaging Dynasties was blasted on social media and compared to the graphics of online video games — it holds a majority of one-star reviews on social network Douban), or in artistic merit (Young Mao Zedong, for instance, was a cheap and thoughtless swing at a premise — the animation itself is just as bad). That barrier isn’t easy to break through, with China having less experience in the industry, and with animated films taking under 5% of the country’s total box office compared to North America’s 10%.
Enter Light Chaser Animation. The Beijing-born animation studio was founded four years ago by Gary Wang — who’d recently sold his successful streaming video website Tudou to video giant Youku — Yuan Ye, and Yu Zhou. Their goal, Yu tells us, was to create world-class animated films with a Chinese cultural touch.
Three years after its founding, Light Chaser released their first feature film, Little Door Gods. The movie centers on two “door guardians” from Chinese mythology, who venture down to the human world after realizing that humanity’s obsession with modern life has left them largely forgotten.
“When Light Chaser was founded, we wrote three original stories,” Yu explains. “We decided to do Little Door Gods first because there is a high level of awareness of door gods among all Chinese, and because technically, human characters are relatively easy compared to animal characters — the other two stories had many more animal characters.”
The film debuted in 2016, earning 10 million USD in its opening weekend. The production quality is excellent — virtually indistinguishable from that of Hollywood. The film was a hit in China, where audiences had never witnessed a local animated release on par with imported titles.
“We believe that to build a world-class studio, you need to have art, technology, and management capabilities — the three are equally important.”
That three-part formula has served the studio well. Paying low rent for a warehouse on the outskirts of Beijing, they directed extra funds toward cutting-edge technology. Their staff consists of mostly 20-somethings, several of whom were poached from Pixar and DreamWorks, all passionate about storytelling. With a successful domestic release, the studio could have called it a wrap. But the film caught international attention, eventually leading to an unplanned overseas release.
“It was not planned from the start,” Yu says. “Right after the film released in China, we got a cold call from Harvey Weinstein and he visited our studio. We formed a partnership with The Weinstein Company and granted them international distribution rights.”
Now, Little Door Gods has been released on Netflix, under the title The Guardian Brothers. The English version of the film runs about twenty minutes shorter, with certain elements cut out to make it more digestible for a non-Chinese audience. In addition to a release on a high-profile international platform, the film also benefits from a ridiculously star-studded cast. The English version features Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Edward Norton, among others.
“The voice cast was amazing, and the credit of assembling it goes to The Weinstein Company. We feel very fortunate and thankful to have such a cast for our first feature film,” Yu explains. “The changes in the international version were mainly to make the story simpler and more comprehensible to a family audience in the US, and to reduce the parts that reflect overly-complex Chinese cultural background.”
It looks like adapting Chinese cultural content for an international audience is shaping up to be the name of the game — Oriental DreamWorks just announced that The Monkey King, a film based on the popular legend of Sun Wukong, is among their upcoming titles. The race is on to see if the American-backed company can match Light Chaser when it comes to packaging up Chinese culture for Western audiences. (Their first full-on production, Kung Fu Panda 3, was a hit.)
Light Chaser, however, has no need to be worried. They recently released their second film, Tea Pets, about a group of clay figurine tea accessories who leave the confines of the tea shop to find their purpose (the trailer has a welcome Toy Story vibe). The fast-acting, quick-learning studio seems intent on maintaining its momentum.
Will we see Tea Pets coming stateside anytime soon? Nothing’s for sure yet, but Yu says they’re hoping that Tea Pets and their future films will continue to reach and connect with audiences overseas. In a few years, they hope, we’ll see a Chinese-born animation go on to become a worldwide hit.
Find The Guardian Brothers on Netflix.