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July 26, 2011

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Big Bird and Elmo speak Mandarin

MORE Western productions and animations are using Chinese characters and settings. The latest is the acclaimed children's TV series "Sesame Street," set in Shanghai and starring a little Chinese tiger called Lily. Xu Wei tunes in.

Lily, a four-year-old girl tiger who loves martial arts, speaks Mandarin with Elmo and Big Bird and plays in Shanghai longtang (lanes) flanked by Shanghai traditional shikumen (stone-gate) houses.

They star in the first Chinese version of "Sesame Street," titled "Big Bird Looks at the World." Together Lily, Elmo and Big Bird acquire basic knowledge (like where the sun goes at night) and learn about values such as sharing, collaboration, loyalty, respect and persistence. The series tries to foster children's natural curiosity about nature and science and encourages hands-on exploration.

It's comprised of 52, 11-minute episodes that are aired daily on CCTV-12 at 2pm. Big Bird first visited China 27 years ago for a special production, but there has been no daily series.

Lily is the newly created lead character in the series aimed at children aged from 3 to 7.

The show is a co-production between Sesame Workshop and Shanghai Toonmax Media Co Ltd.

Sesame Workshop is the latest of the increasing number of foreign animation producers that are introducing Chinese characters and elements to make their messages more appealing to Chinese audience. These include the "Kung Fu Panda" Hollywood blockbusters, a German coproduction "Laura's Star in China" and possibly a future "Smurfs" movie (one will be released next month but the director says China could well be the next setting).

"Lily is a cute, sweet and curious" girl, says Ye Chao, deputy general manager of Shanghai Toonmax Media. "The lovely rosette in her hair shows a girl tiger's unusual feminine' side. The personalities of the trio complement each other."

Ye says that they need to make some adjustments in the characters and localize the settings to increase the show's appeal.

"The tiger is one of the most dynamic and auspicious signs of the Chinese Zodiac," says Ye, "and it's easy to create many cute animated tigers. At first sight, Chinese children identify with a tiger friend."

It took Ye and his team three years to produce the series, including developing a teaching outline, writing the script and shooting. The series will have business byproducts (such as toys, dolls, DVDs, books). The American team provides advice and support to ensure the show's original structure and style are retained.

Veteran Hollywood animators are also creating cartoon robot models for Toonmax Media's latest original animated series "OYEEO," which teaches children about environmental protection on an imaginary island.

The first season, containing 104 episodes, will be released at the end of the year.

The characters will be amusement park rids ( such as trains, merry-go-round, Ferris wheel), not humans or animals, who want to preserve the island and prevent over-exploitation of resources.

Incorporating Chinese elements is an effective way for Hollywood animation to appeal to a Chinese audience, according to professor Shi Chuan, a film and media expert at Shanghai University.

"It's about cultural identity," Professor Shi says. "Moderate and distinctive Chinese elements will also pave the way for international distribution of excellent domestic animated films." "However, Chinese elements should not be overdone and should conform to current cultural trends," he says, adding that successful animation has global appeal, tackling universal themes and providing insight into human nature.

Successful examples are the Hollywood blockbuster animations, "Kung Fu Panda" 1 and 2, both set in China, involving Chinese characters, martial arts and other elements. The latest, "Kung Fu Panda 2" released last month, has taken in around 600 million yuan (US$93 million) at the box office in China.

"Kung Fu Panda 2" includes dandan noodles (a kind of Sichuan-style noodles), erhu (a two-stringed Chinese musical instrument), dragon and lion dances and fireworks.

The story line of "Kung Fu Panda 2" about panda Po's journey to find his real mother and roots resonates with Chinese people's emphasis on close family ties.

The panda success story has inspired Chinese animators.

One example is the 3D animated film "Legend of a Rabbit" now being screened domestically. The 120-million-yuan film includes traditional Chinese activities such as kite flying, temple fairs and traditional opera performances. The production team included more than 500 animators.

The story is about a rabbit who sets out to save a martial arts club from a villain.

Box office figures have not yet been released, but director Sun Lijun says the copyright has been sold to 65 countries and regions.

Describing the film as China's answer to "Kung Fu Panda 2," Liu says the film's competitiveness lies in its cultural uniqueness and connection with Chinese viewers.

This year is the Chinese Year of Rabbit.

Shanghai Animation Film Studio is also making a 3D version of its classic "The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven" (1964) that was acclaimed worldwide as a spectacular Chinese production.

The Monkey King is a household name, the beloved figure in the classic novel "Journey to the West." The Monkey King is courageous, loyal, faithful and playful. The Monkey King was originally a monkey-shaped rock; he can assume 72 different forms and he possesses strong powers to fight against evil.

It will be released in January.

Some famous domestic and overseas animation studies had expressed interest in buying the copyright over the years, but did not do so.

It remains the property of Shanghai Animation Studio.

The original 2D film is part of China's cultural heritage, says Su Da, director of the 3D version. "It's part of our nostalgia for childhood. We believe the distinctive Chinese elements in the new 3D film will attract today's children and their parents. It will be a rare domestic animation that appeals to different generations."

All the characters and scenes will retain the essence of the 2D original. France's Technicolor Business Group is assisting in restoration of the original.

However, Chinese elements are not always a trump card for animated productions. The Sino-German co-produced animation "Laura's Star in China," despite its critical acclaim, was not very popular with children and teenagers earlier this year. It's about a Chinese girl pursuring her dream.

"The film's Chinese scenes and elements don't make it very different from ordinary animation," says Yang Yanjun, a middle school student. "The story is plain and boring and the characters don't appeal at all. What we want is a good story."

Movie critics note that the use of Chinese elements is a two-edged sword. Too many Chinese elements may distract the audience from the story line. Too few, it fails to attract.

Film and TV critic Liu Haibo says Chinese elements need to be more than a backdrop. They should be naturally integrated in the plot. He cites examples such as use of shadow play, puppets and animated dolls made of clay, all Chinese folk arts.


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