For the new animated movie “Abominable,” bringing a big city in China to life with accuracy means that even the trash has to look right. Chinese animators collaborating with DreamWorks animators urged them to dump metal trash cans from backdrops because “we don’t have metal trash cans.”
“It took nights and weekends to replace all of that, but it was worth it,” director Jill Culton said.
It’s understandable to feel some pressure not to offend China’s 1 billion potential moviegoers. It’s been 20 years since a Hollywood cartoon with a plucky Chinese heroine opened in China. The film, Disney’s “Mulan,” brought little honor to its box office grosses.
DreamWorks Animation and Shanghai-based Pearl Studio hope “Abominable,” which opens Sept. 27 in the U.S., can make the crossover leap.
The movie is their first joint production since a Chinese media conglomerate took over Oriental DreamWorks in 2018 and rebranded it Pearl Studio. Most of the voice cast, which includes Chloe Bennet of Marvel’s “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” is of Asian descent. The film opens in China on Oct. 1, which is a public holiday celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of People’s Republic of China.
“Abominable” centers on the bond between Yi, a teenage girl grieving the loss of her father, and a Yeti. She and her friends embark on a 2,000-mile (3,219-kilometer) trek to bring their big-footed buddy, who they name Everest, back to the Himalayas.
The group lives in a nameless Chinese metropolis that closely resembles Shanghai down to the bamboo building scaffolding.
The visuals are a product of the open back-and-forth dialogue between animators in the East and West, Culton said. She wanted to make sure they were doing more than throwing “Chinese pieces and parts in just to please the audience.”
“If you’re trying to design L.A. and you live in Shanghai, you would totally get it wrong,” she said. “So, if you’re going to do a movie in China and that’s the goal you want —authentication —I don’t know any way around not working with someone who’s based there who knows the culture.”
Animators and designers were meticulous in what’s being touted as the first major animated feature about a family in modern China. In designing Yi’s home, the team wanted details about the apartment size of a typical Chinese family and even the inclusion of pork buns on the dinner table, said Peilin Chou, Pearl Studio’s chief creative officer. Feedback from early test screenings in China has been “a compliment and a relief.”
“(Viewers) thought the film was locally made in China,” said Chou, who worked on “Mulan.” ‘’They didn’t feel like it was a foreign film coming into China.”
“Mulan,” the centuries-old Chinese legend of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to fight in the army, got a frosty reception when it opened in China in 1999. While it grossed more than $300 million globally, it earned $30,000 in 22 days in Mulan’s supposed home province of Hunan, according to a story from the South China Morning Post and reports citing the official Xinhua News Agency. The film performed even worse in Shanghai.
One theory on why “Mulan” failed is that an individualistic heroine with a love interest veered too far from the original story. Another is that an American studio retelling a Chinese folktale was cringe-worthy.
“I think the key point to take away is when Hollywood studios try to create for the Chinese market, they tend to be unsuccessful,” said Aynne Kokas, author of “Hollywood Made in China.” ‘’They thought ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ would do well in the Chinese market and it didn’t. Some of it is because of a lack of nuance in a lot of the fare.”
Even casting Chinese actors in Hollywood live-action movies can misfire. For example, Kokas said, accents can vary from Cantonese to Taiwanese. So, Chinese audiences find it strange when characters in a movie all speak with different inflections.
Some American kids’ movies, however, have done well — like Disney’s “Zootopia” and “Coco.” The latter, about a boy in Mexico who wants to be a musician, has been Pixar’s most successful feature in China to date. It earned more than $182 million after its 2017 release, according to Comscore.
“The expectations of authenticity and representation are much lower about Mexican culture in China than they would be about Chinese culture,” Kokas said. “So, it’s possible you’re going to be engaged in the narrative and the beauty and the aspects of the characters without being distracted by the cultural inaccuracies.”
Authentic visuals can only go so far if the film’s emotional journey fails to resonate with all audiences, Culton said.
“I pitched this movie as a girl who has this drive to get Everest back to his home and family because she subconsciously wants to connect to her own family,” Culton said. “I think that disconnect and reconnection is more of a universal thing that everybody can relate to.”