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Media & Entertainment

Trade war truce? China-Hollywood animation taps Golden Week magic

Pearl Studio's 'Abominable' brings DreamWorks expertise to Chinese story line

"Abominable" opened in U.S. theaters on Friday. (Courtesy of Pearl Studio)   © Pearl Studio

NEW YORK -- There is a monster looming over Times Square, and it has come to pull at heart strings -- and hopefully purse strings.

The billboard for the animated film "Abominable" features the smiling, fluffy white face of one of its main characters, a yeti lost in Shanghai. Billed as the first animated film to feature a modern Chinese family, it is also the latest installment in China's efforts to create a truly global blockbuster.

Written and directed by American animator Jill Culton, Abominable is a co-production between DreamWorks Animation and China's Pearl Studio, in what might seem like a somewhat odd pairing given the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. It boasts an international cast including Chloe Bennet, Albert Tsai, Sarah Paulson, and Tenzing Norgay Trainor. Those involved are hoping that its family-friendly storyline and DreamWorks-inspired style will win over international audiences.

Unusual for a Chinese film, it was released in the U.S. first, on Friday, and will debut four days later in China, on Tuesday.

For Pearl Studio, there is a lot riding on "Abominable" -- it is the first movie under its own brand after being fully acquired by its parent, China Media Capital Partners. The studio was originally called Oriental DreamWorks, and was a joint venture between DreamWorks and CMC. The two studios last collaborated on "Kung Fu Panda 3."

"We pitched a bunch of ideas at the time [when] we were still one company with DreamWorks. Jill really responded to this idea of making a movie about a yeti," Peilin Chou, chief creative officer of Pearl Studio, told the Nikkei Asian Review at the studio's New York office. "She grew up always having really large dogs and currently still has them. They're like 120 pounds, like crazy large. She loved the idea of how her dogs are always so expressive even though they couldn't talk."

A billboard showing "Abominable" is seen at Time Square, New York City. (Photo by Marrian Zhou)

The film's Tuesday release in China also marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China and the start of the country's Golden Week holiday. It is a prime slot, and "Abominable" is the only coproduction to have secured a release on the date.

"This film is a love letter to China, and it showcases the beauty of China in a way that you've never seen before. It would be a wonderful way to be a part of the birthday celebration there," said Chou, adding that the release date was determined a long time ago. "It's also one of the most popular moviegoing weeks of the year, so box office-wise, they thought it made a lot of sense."

Beijing is keen to up China's cultural presence -- and thus soft power -- on the global stage, and has called on filmmakers and other artists to help achieve that goal.

Those involved in "Abominable" are confident that it can succeed where its predecessors stumbled. The film has partnered with audio tech company TheaterEars to provide Mandarin, Spanish and English services for the audience in the U.S. Viewers can listen to the Mandarin or Spanish dubbed audio track on the TheaterEars app for free as the movie plays along in English.

A film analyst from Chinese firm Movie Intelligence, who goes by the name Tank, said that releasing the film in the U.S. first could help it perform better in China.

"There will likely be more positive response from the Chinese audience. The film's global marketing efforts are much better than other Chinese coproduction films coming out this year," Tank said. "I think it will show at the box office, especially as it will be released on Oct. 1, China's Golden Week."

At the same time, however, "Abominable" will face strong competition from three movies with a more explicitly "patriotic" flavor.

"The Climbers" tells the story of four Chinese climbers tackling the most difficult part of Mount Everest, while "The Captain" is a based on the true story of a Chinese pilot who saved his flight from disaster. "My People, My Country" consists of seven historical vignettes depicting normal people sacrificing for their country.

Chou, however, is confident that "Abominable" will bring something different to the Golden Week lineup.

"We really wanted Chinese families to go and feel like this is just like my family, and this looks like where we live," said Chou. "It's a core value at Pearl Studio that we can be culturally specific, authentic but also be globally relatable."

Yi and her friends embarked on a journey to return the lost Yeti to his home in the Himalayas. (Courtesy of Pearl Studio)   © Pearl Studio

Although a good release date in China tends to ensure a strong box office performance, Pearl Studio has its eyes on the globe, especially as the Shanghai-based company considers itself "a Hollywood studio," Chou said.

"Cultural imprint is weaker in animation, which offers a rare opportunity for Chinese cinema to enter the global market," said Michael Berry, professor and director of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies. "Animation is more globally translatable than live action films. You can call on Hollywood A-list actors to dub a film, and then easily dub it into a different language, perhaps [with] A-listers in China."

The Chinese government has also been pushing for domestic filmmakers to make their mark on the global stage. Berry pointed out that at a cultural summit a few years ago, Beijing explicitly called on artists and film groups to bring Chinese culture to the world.

Chinese live-action films have rarely done well in the West, in part because most of them required subtitles. And while the quality of Chinese animation has improved in recent years -- "Monkey King" and "Ne Zha" both did well at the box office -- it has not yet made waves overseas.

Unlike those two films however, which are based on Chinese legends, "Abominable" has a more universal story line and its DreamWorks-style of animation is also more familiar for Western audiences.

Aynne Kokas, author of "Hollywood Made in China" and a professor at the University of Virginia, believes that more films about everyday life in China are needed outside the country.

"It's a good thing, particularly in this era of increasing U.S.-China tension, for people around the world to see a version of China [showing] the life of regular people, because most Chinese people are not engaged in international trade politics. I think more of that is better," Kokas said, "There is so much emphasis on the role of the [Communist] Party, so more human perspectives, I think, is helpful."

Next year, Pearl Studio has another animated movie coming out, called "Over the Moon." It will be a coproduction film with Netflix and tells the story of a girl who builds a rocket to meet Chang'e, a Chinese goddess living on the moon.

"Over the Moon" will be directed by Glen Keane, who has credits on classic animated films such as "Pocahontas," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Tarzan."

The film will be released on Netflix outside of China, where the service is blocked, and in theaters within the country. Netflix also plans a limited theatrical release before the film launches on the streaming platform in the U.S.

Chou said the studio is aiming for Oct. 1 again as the release date because next year's national day coincides with the Moon Festival.

She also said that although Pearl Studio will move beyond Chinese legends and culture in movies down the line, Chinese characters will always have a place in the studio's works.

"I think we're very interested in representing the world as it really is, in the globalizing landscape," said Chou. "It happens that, there are Chinese people all over the world. I believe over 50% of the world population are Asian. So you're going to see that diversity, and you're going to see that representation."

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