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Growing Pains

2012-09-11 10:06:56        Global Times

After a flurry of animated films over the summer, children's movies have begun a hiatus at the box office set to last until the winter holidays. Family-friendly children's movies have enjoyed a bumper year in 2012, with imported films including The Avengers, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and Ice Age: Continental Drift all performing well.

But these success stories can't overshadow deeply-rooted problems in China's children's film industry. Long regarded domestically as a cinematic novelty, the genre of animated films and movies with child protagonists has floundered to compete in an arena dominated by Hollywood.

"In the profit-driven cinema market, filmmakers are more accustomed to using heavy themes such as violence and sex to appeal to audiences. This sharply contrasts with children's films, which uphold the true, good and beautiful," Zhang Zhonghua, director of a children's movie Heart Tomato (2012), told Metro Beijing.

Imitate, don't innovate

Foreign children's films have dominated the Chinese box office in recent years, with Kung Fu Panda (2008) and its sequel both drawing audiences of all ages. However, domestic films in the genre have struggled to match this success due to what critics and audiences alike identify as the wide gap in quality.

"Every year more than 600 Chinese movies vie to be screened at cinemas, but only one-sixth of these actually hit the big screen. An even smaller percentage of these movies are children's films. For some screened films, such as last year's Legend of a Rabbit, poor screenplay and production results in an unattractive film," said film critic Miao Ruohe.

Legend of a Rabbit, a 3D action-comedy set in ancient China, was widely panned by critics for its unimaginative plot that strongly resembled that of Kung Fu Panda. It's a common story, however, with many major domestic film websites such mtime.com scoring Chinese children's films as lowest based on cinemagoers' opinions.

As a veteran of the film industry, Zhang said the lack of support from investors was the biggest cause for the lackluster quality of domestic children's movies.

"A budget of 3 million yuan ($472,955) is huge for a children's film, but this is pocket money compared to domestic films in other genres. Few production companies dare invest huge amounts of money in making children's films for fear they will flop," Zhang explained.

Education over entertainment

Wu Zongqiang, director of children's film Last Wish (2011), told Metro Beijing that kids movies are still seen as a novelty in Chinese cinema and aren't taken as seriously as they are in Hollywood, where heavyweight studios such as Pixar are universally respected.

"Even if some good scripts appear, the shortage of money in creating top audio and visual effects will ruin a children's film," he said.

Zhang insists the biggest problem plaguing children's movies in China is the lack of innovation and creativity.

"The belief that children's films ought to educate kids has resulted in stale plots and excessive preaching in storytelling," noted Zhang.

Film critic Yu Xin argued China's lack of a film rating system makes it difficult for creative screenplays to be created.

Promising potential

While the current market for children's films might be infertile, film industry insiders acknowledge the market in the long-run is lucrative.

"There are 370 million children in China, so children's films have a huge market to explore," Zhang said.

"The priority for children's films must be entertainment. More diverse elements such as science fiction-rich plots should also be embraced to attract young audiences."

The Dragon Knight (2011) directed by Yu Shengjun, which raked in 35 million yuan in box office takings, was adapted from an online game depicting a magic world, where a young dragon knight named Luoke strives to save his kingdom from villains.

Reviews declared the film a success for breaking with many traditional animated conventions by displaying characters as less one-dimensional and more realistic.

Its sequel, The Dragon Knight 2: Wish of the Knight, is slated for release in November.

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