Review by C.J. Bunce
New Gods: Yang Jian is the latest 3D-animated action adventure, this time from China, and it is not only worthy of best animated feature award consideration, its early success in China may also rank it among the best of any type of film there for the year. A film called New Gods: Yang Jian may not immediately sound like one of the most significant new films in theaters this year–not all titles translate with the appeal they find in their native country, but consider the generic title Star Wars before 1977. It is in fact a stunning, groundbreaking piece of animation that pulls together the very best of your favorite fantasy and mythology tropes, all into a two-hour masterpiece.
An action-packed tale of a god of war from ancient Chinese lore reborn as a bounty hunter or “catcher,” it plays like a mix of the best elements of mythic storytelling of Homer’s gods, Jin Yong’s wuxia novels, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, Hayao Miyazaki’s anime adventures, George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogies, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels, and the One Thousand and One Nights. Yet it stands by itself as something unique in its visual approach as it sets a new benchmark among the chronicles of myths, legends, and magical tales in the tradition of animated classics from The Jungle Book to Aladdin to beloved anime from Princess Mononoke to Cowboy Bebop. New Gods: Yang Jian comes to theaters in the U.S. next week. If you’re after a sweeping, epic action experience in theaters this year, this is the movie not to miss.
Hailing from the minds of a thousand creators, the film incorporates literally 400 million CPU hours of digital work from Chinese studio Light Chaser Animation, half via cloud development–a record in animation according to director Zhao Ji. Written by Mu Chuan, this New Gods entry is in the same series as the studio’s prior film, the 2021 anime movie New Gods: Nezha Reborn (now on Netflix). It’s another retelling of gods from Chinese history, but otherwise it has no story ties to that film. It also has substantially improved animation, techniques including tighter editing and flow of battle scene choreography, life-like natural environments, and better human character stylings. Viewers will instantly notice something else–steam and smoke flutter like you’ve never before seen in animation, and Zhao used the firm’s in-house cloth and motion capture technologies to provide an experience comparable to the high contrasts and eye-popping creations from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse from five years ago.
Yang Shen (also Yang Jian) was once a powerful force some 1,500 years ago–half man and half god (like Hercules of Greek myths). But twelve years ago an event involving his sister changed his world. Now he drifts along on a floating boat across the sky–a ship that has bits of steampunk technology, but also seems to borrow from the science fiction futurism of French creator Luc Besson. Like Mal Reynolds in Firefly, Shen casually leads a crew from job to job, and like Spike Spiegel of Cowboy Bebop he gets word of his next bounty in a unique manner. With a loyal colleague named Xiaotian who is part excitable dog, part excitable girl (who has the ability to morph into a powerful defender who can suck in others’ energy) and a crew of large pirate-like fellows he has partnered with for decades, they move from place to place acquiring just enough money to live on, hardly lifting a finger, using minimal magic to do the bare minimum required of their work. That is, until a dark-haired woman named Wanluo arrives in classic film noir fashion. Shen sees her as just another client, but she is mysterious and different somehow. She pays him a full jar of coins to find a young man named Chenxiang.
The secrets of Shen’s past with the young man and the mysterious woman are slowly pieced together as marauders of different factions also seek to capture Chenxiang. Shen is rarely fazed by anything, but upon encountering the young man something about his bounty gets him interested in the circumstances unfolding around him. What doesn’t he remember from his past, and what has his own master–the wise old man called Yuding of the cave–kept from him? What is the story behind a lotus lantern everyone seeks, and who can he trust?
Shen encounters a wise, downtrodden, older advisor named Gongbao. Once a general of the Eastern sea in warring times, he reflects his power in his ease of attitude and nonchalance. A clever blend of Strider from The Lord of the Rings, Qui-Gon Jinn of Star Wars, Kikuchiyu of Seven Samurai, Lee Scoresby of His Dark Materials, and Böri Khan of Mulan, he enters battle as a last resort with his trusty companion, a giant white tiger. Their powers reach beyond those of mere mortals, and the sky fills with mirror-like, electricity-filled avatars, evoking battles among the very characters of the constellations. In a concept we glimpsed in last year’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, giant armored warriors with over-sized swords (who are near life-like but animated visions of Todd McFarlane fantasy statues) battle with music itself as ammunition, and one warrior’s sole weapon is a form of “battle lute,” flinging note-daggers at his prey.
Shen carries a small square harmonica everywhere, and we are introduced to him in a surprising soundtrack of American jazz and folk music from composer Guo Haowei. The film takes advantage of its many opportunities and avenues for musical expression, including the magically ethereal “Ode to the Luo River Goddess,” followed by a 1930s swing number that feels like it came from The Untouchables, and then a grinding instrumental version of what feels like a B-side song by The Doors. Traditional instruments are combined with a modern orchestra to achieve a blend of the ancient and modern. A harmonica, a guitar, a simple female voice–the juxtaposition between the calmness and the rollicking action results in a grandeur and vibe that will sweep up the audience. Credit goes to the editing, the sound and the sound editing, too–there’s a lot in this movie. Imagine all Peter Jackson’s Tolkien movies or nine Star Wars movies collapsed into one two-hour journey.
Screenwriter Mu Chuan’s powerful story is set around the Wei, Jin, and Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589). The film reflects that director Zhao adapted every symbol, prop, costume, crown, silk, and artistic relic from the historical record. The Chinese aesthetics will be jaw-dropping to Western audiences, and the story, although not readily familiar, has so much in common with other mythologies that audiences won’t need any background to become immersed in this story based in China’s past.
The CGI result should have the same impact on viewers as their first theatrical screenings of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Brave, although the rapid action sequences are like an amped up version of Aladdin running through the streets of the bustling plaza. One enormous fantasy cityscape Shen flies through calls back to Luc Besson’s bustling sci-fi metropolis in Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Another scene with a sail barge escape feels like Waterworld or Mad Max, and the aerial battles evoke the Lords of Death from Big Trouble in Little China. Then a landscape Shen walks across looks like the hot sulfur springs of Yellowstone Park. In the background of each street scene are animal-human hybrids (apes, monkeys, wolves), and familiar mystical characters of all kinds of religions, some interacting with the show’s leads, others simply creating the atmosphere of an international pantheon akin to the Greek gods. There is science fiction here, too–like giant Stargate-looking rings that propel ships faster across the skies.
Zhao plans another entry into his animated film universe. Don’t miss this animated spectacle. It’s creative, imaginative, exciting and gorgeous action-filled, fantasy fun. New Gods: Yang Jian arrives in theaters in the U.S. for limited screenings on January 20, 2023.