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Hopes of Chinese Animation Ride on 'Tofu Boy'

  • Stephanie Ho

BEIJING - Popular western movies like Kung Fu Panda are presenting a challenge for Chinese animators, who have yet to produce a hit among international audiences.

But for Director Sun Lijun, creator of Legend of a Rabbit, a 3D film about a clueless rabbit who doesn't know he's inherited awesome kung fu abilities, raising China's animation standards is critical.

Prior to its 2011 release, which was preceded by a massive international marketing campaign, Legend of a Rabbit was expected to be a Chinese-animation masterpiece. Although Sun says he was not completely satisfied with the film, it nonetheless drew attention to China's burgeoning role in the feature-length animation industry.

“What made me proud is that The Guardian had an article that was titled 'China Picks Cartoon Fight with Hollywood,'" he says. "It means that, as a Chinese, I am competing with the United States. It's just like Liu Xiang competing in the 100 meters - this is definitely a proud thing for Chinese.”

Because "Rabbit" received mixed international review -- both the U.S.-based Hollywood Reporter and the Kuala Lumpur's Sun Daily cited technical strengths and plotline weaknesses -- the hopes of Chinese animation are riding on Sun's newest character, Tofu Boy, a good-hearted, but naughty young lad made of bean curd.

Arguing that a good story is not the most important thing in feature-length animation, Tofu Boy's storyline, says Sun, won't be critical to its success.

“A good cartoon first of all has to have a good character that arouses people's emotions," he says. "Years later, we forget about the story, but the characters remain in our consciousness."

One of Sun's collaborators on Tofu Boy, which is set for release in 2014, is American Kevin Geiger, head of Magic Dumpling Entertainment, a Beijing-based animation-content development company with branches in Taipei and Los Angeles.

Tofu Boy's character, says Geiger, will be loosely based on Pinocchio.

“It's not an adaptation of Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio, but inspired by the story of a good little boy who makes bad decisions and learns about life the hard way," he says.

Geiger, who spent 12 years working for the Walt Disney Company in feature animation and visual effects, now prefers to be part of a Chinese entity.

“The advantage we have by having Magic Dumpling in the mainland, being a wholly-owned Chinese company, is that the quotas that apply to Chinese television, to Chinese films, don't apply to Chinese content that we are creating in the Magic Dumpling's headquarters in China," he says.

Historically protective of its own film industry, China recently relaxed annual quotas on the number of foreign films allowed -- from 20 to 34, a gesture welcomed by industry counterparts in the West.

U.S. animation heavyweights Disney and Dreamworks have long been eager to reach Chinese audiences, and recently set up cooperative arrangements with Chinese partners to start taking advantage of what Geiger calls the country's “red hot market.”