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Monkey King vs Kung Fu Panda?

CHINA'S animation industry, though highly creative, is struggling to come up with a cartoon superhero beloved worldwide. Like Hollywood's Kung Fu Panda. Xu Wei sketches the scene.

Pleasant Goat and Mcdull Pig - the next superheroes?

China's 12 animals of the zodiac are a natural for animators, and a recent competition has enshrined a dozen of cartoon beasts in hopes of promoting animation and traditional culture.

It is also hoped that the cartoon zodiac animals - publicized nationwide and printed on postage stamps - will charm Chinese children who seem to be taken with Western astrology and its 12 signs.

Last Friday awards were given to the top 12 images of captivating animals of the zodiac, chosen from among 27,850 entries. The winning designs will be issued as a special postage stamp series.

The competition was launched a year ago by the China Folklore Society and Shanghai Animation Film Studio. Their joint aim is to increase popular awareness of traditional culture and spur the domestic cartoon industry.

For years the Chinese animation industry has been trying to reestablish its popularity - with distinct Chinese characters - in the face of enormous international competition from Japan and Hollywood. The industry is more than 80 years old.

"Kung Fu Panda" (2008), a Hollywood sensation worldwide, was yet another wakeup call. And "Kung Fu Panda 2" is expected in 2011. Animators and industry experts have been asking themselves why foreigners were the first to so successfully animate the beloved panda.

People's Daily recently raised 10 questions about Chinese animation, including: "Can Pleasant Goat (a domestic cartoon character) beat Kung Fu Panda?" "Why is the 700-year-old Monkey King so lonely?" and "How far is China from becoming an animation power?"

Industry experts say there's no lack of creative ideas and characters in China, but the problem is an immature animation industry and lack of resources.

The Monkey King, the Black Cat Detective and Calabash Brothers were enormously popular some two decades ago and the Monkey King, of course, is known worldwide and perhaps ripe for reinvention. They were part of the so-called golden age of Chinese animation from the 1950s to the 1980s, excluding the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).

The most successful recent animations include "Mcdull," a kung fu piggie that's been made into four movies, and "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf," also around for some years but just made into a successful film.

Still, while these are popular in China, there are not many of them and they don't shine internationally. They're no match for Japan's Doraemon and Astro Boy, to say nothing of Kung Fu Panda.

It is hoped that the zodiac cartoon competition will generate some fresh ideas.

"The long history and rich legends behind the Chinese zodiac signs are good inspiration for really eye-catching and original Chinese cartoon characters," says Wang Qingyue, an organizer of the event.

Chinese zodiac culture has been included on the list of Shanghai's intangible cultural heritage, according to Liu Kuili, director of China Folklore Society and a judge of the competition. The winning works are infused with auspicious meaning and strong local flavor.

Chinese mainland sculptor Liu Yajun whose zodiac "tiger" design won the top prize says he was inspired by images from classic cartoon films, such as "Ne Zha Conquers the Dragon King" and "Uproar in Heaven."

"The tiger's eyebrows are inspired by the propitious clouds in these films," he says. "And its nose and eyes are based on the vivid figure of the embroidered Chinese folk fabric tiger."

These top 12 winning designs will be marketed globally in a series of by-products including toys, comic books, animation films and theme park figures. The latest information will be posted on

The zodiac competition also reflects nostalgia for original cartoon images, such as the Monkey King, the Calabash Brothers and Black Cat Detective.

Since the 1990s, the industry has tried to reanimate itself in the face of foreign competition and there have been recent signs of modest revival.

Earlier this year, the feature film "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf" made around 80 million yuan (US$11.7 million) in theaters nationwide, a record for domestic animation. It is adapted from a popular 500-episode TV animation series, in which the goat looks like a sheep.

Last year's animated feature "Calabash Brothers," a remake of the 1986 TV series, took in 10 million yuan nationally.

Wang Ying, general manager of CCTV Animation, attributes the domestic success of the two films to originality in content and promotion.

"The key to a good animation is imagination," Wang adds. "Even if we have created an imaginative story, we still need to use our imagination in marketing and film distribution."

He expects "Mcdull Wudang," the tale of an ordinary pig who becomes a kung fu pig, to be a success domestically. The film, the fourth Mcdull, will be released on July 24. In this installment the pink pig meets apprentices of Bruce Lee and Hong Kong action director Yuen Woo-ping.

Chinese animation production for 2008 totalled a record of 131,042 minutes, a 28 percent increase over the previous year.

However, many productions are not as well-received by the children as their foreign counterparts for the lack of originality in the image design and story line.

Last week's Fantasy China 2009 was an exposition of international cartoons and games. Industry professionals brainstormed ideas to help revive China's animation industry.

Lance Diaresco, Disney's vice president of marketing for China, says the economic downturn is a concern but the Chinese market still has great potential for wonderful original stories.

Disney has worked with Chinese teams on heartwarming films targeting the Chinese audience, "Trail of the Panda" and "The Secret of the Magic Gourd." The Disney brand owns about 5,000 retail stores in China.

"The key strategy for Walt Disney is creativity, technology and global expansion," Diaresco says. "But a great story-telling is always the foundation of our business, and emotion is the currency of brands."

Pierre Cheung, BBC worldwide senior business manager for Asia, says its international business in China is booming.

"It is necessary to conduct market research and surveys to know and reach your target group," he says. "Then your creative work on the characters and stories will be more effective and customer-oriented." Animating the cartoon industry Joyce Xu

China's Ministry of Culture has put forth an ambitious timeline: five to 10 years to become a global animation powerhouse.

That will take more than spellbinding cartoon creations that are uniquely Chinese and please a domestic audience. It will take time - successful animations don't happen overnight.

Good animation and artistry must be nurtured.

Industry experts say the big problem is a premature rush to market by producers who are animated first and foremost by profit and quick returns, not necessarily excellence.

It usually takes four or five years to produce a first-class feature animation. But many impatient Chinese investors don't want to take the risk of such a long-term process.

Wang Liuyi, an animation expert, says he was surprised by the box office success of the recent feature "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf" - the marketing was haphazard compared with the Hollywood animation blockbuster "Kung Fu Panda," which made 100 million yuan (US$14.6 million) of box office in China.

He says Chinese animators and producers can learn from Japan and Hollywood, especially in their creative teams for original stories and their marketing and industry chain.

"Hollywood has a precise and long industry chain as well as a mature operating mechanism," he says.

It nurtures the animations' originality and high-quality artistry, he says. Big returns come not just from ticket sales, he adds, but also from advertising and by-products.


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