I have said before and will, I am entirely sure, have reason to say it again: nothing in the whole world of filmmaking in the 2010s interests me as much as the Chinese film industry's concerted efforts to establish itself as an internationally competitive alternative to Hollywood, concurrent with the swift rise of that country's marketplace to become the most important export destination for American cinema. That effort has, most visibly, focused on exactly the same kind of films that Americans themselves have been shoveling into foreign markets for decades: visual-effects driven action-adventures with some fantasy or sci-fi elements (this year's The Wandering Earth is probably the most obvious example of this trend in the West, mostly by virtue of being the first one to receive a concerted theatrical push). Somewhat less visibly, it has also involved the other big American export product: comic CGI animated features for an all-ages audience. And if that has been less visible, this is in large part because of how extremely bad Chinese CGI animated features have tended to be. This is no reflection on the Chinese industry in particular; it's an expensive, fussy medium, with a vanishingly small success rate for examples produced in any country other than United States. But one doesn't get the sense that e.g. the French want it so badly.

It's too soon to make any big claims, but it seems that animation studio Chengdu Coco Cartoon might have cracked it. For that company has now brought into the world a certain Ne Zha, a title that gives me a huge itchy feeling every time I look at it: it stars a folkloric character who has, to my knowledge, only ever been identified in English-language texts as just Nezha, without the space (the original title, in full, translates to Birth of the Demon Child Nezha). But the distributor has made this choice, and we must now live with it.

Anyway, by any title, Ne Zha is an unexpectedly impressive piece of work, and an even more impressive financial success; allowing for the usual concerns that Chinese box office numbers are generally at least somewhat cooked, it has made a stupefying quantity of money, enough to settle in as both the second-highest-grossing film in the history of the Chinese box office, as well as the second-highest-grossing non-English film ever released, behind 2017's Wolf Warrior II. It is fair to say, without a moment's pause that this is the best-looking non-American 3-D animation I have ever seen; in some very important ways, it's competing right up to the level of Pixar or Disney themselves. And in some important ways, it very much isn't, but let's put a hold on those ways for a minute.

The film centers on a major figure in Chinese folklore, though my knowledge of that folklore is nowhere near strong enough to know how closely the script, by director Jiaozi (the professional nickname of one Yang Yu) and Wei Yunyun, follows any traditional narrative (it is, though, not so terribly dissimilar from the overall thrust of 1979's Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, generally called the first major Chinese animated feature produced after the Cultural Revolution). Nezha (Lu Yanting as a child, Jiongsensefu as an adolescent) is the product of a fairly convoluted bit of mythological wrangling: a Chaos Pearl has been wreaking havoc, and the godlike Yuanshi Tianzun has endeavored to split it into a Spirit Pearl and a Demon Orb. He's tasked his most trusted follower, Taiyi Zhenren (Zhang Jiaming) to cause the Spirit Pearl to be reincarnated as the son of military Li Jing (Chen Hao) and his wife Lady Yin (Lu Qi); unfortunately one of his other followers, the manifestly untrustworthy Shen Gongbao (Yang Wei), has maneuvered his way into stealing the Spirit Pearl as part of a bargain with the Dragon King, and has substituted the Demon Orb to be incarnated instead. Thus when Nezha is born, he's already a fully-formed toddler, deep into his most nastily destructive phase, and filled with demonic power. Taiyi Zhenren is able to bind the child, and the boys parents insist on raising him with love and patience, but it's likely to be for naught: Yuanshi Tianzun laid a curse on the Demon Orb that, after three years of lying dormant, it would be destroyed by unstoppable heavenly lightning. And even though the Orb is now a manic little boy, the curse hasn't been altered even by a smidge.

That's really the prologue, which gets us as far as the film's actual narrative: three years later, Nezha is a quintessential snotty movie tween, who doesn't fit in and can't be true to himself without upsetting everybody. Even though he means well, his demonic reputation precedes him. And so, he decides to prove himself truly worthy once and for all, with the help of his new friend Ao Bing (Han Mo) - who, in the kind of coincidence that could only really play in folklore, is the Spirit Pearl, reincarnated as the child of the Dragon King. There are world-threatening stakes attached to this.

So it's all boilerplate, though something about this particular boilerplate as executed in this particular story feels more authentic, somehow. Certainly, for all that Ne Zha subscribes to the stock conflicts of so many animated features of the last 20 years, it feel insistently weird and timeless: the film's moral universe is not that of any 21st Century society I can name, and does not for a moment pretend to be. And that's all it takes, somehow, for the narrative clichés to completely rejuvenate themselves. There's a genuinely otherworldly feeling to the film, a sense that the world it inhabits is inherently more violent and somehow smaller than our own; smaller in the way of a story that can cover the entire history of humanity in the goings-on of one valley. It's not kiddie-flick triviality, I mean to say, but something slightly morbid and distinctly heavy with the weight of history.

Mind you, those are the narrative clichés. There are other clichés in Ne Zha, and they don't work nearly so well. One of the foremost of these is Nezha himself, an off-putting bundle of teen snarkiness that somehow feels like he's been imported from '90s skater culture, or some other equally inappropriate thing. He's all self-consciously edgy attitude, a thoroughly terrible fit for the film's vibrant evocation of a totally un-modern society. And the same goes for the film's irredeemably bad jokes, which are just rare enough that it feels petty to complain about them, and just frequent enough to seriously knock the entire film off-balance. If you can come up with a trite bit of idiot slapstick that will make the children of (apparently) any culture laugh with mindless delight, Ne Zha has it on tap: fat men falling down, burly men squealing in terror with high falsettos, and farts; so many farts. Farts that serve vital narrative functions, no less.

This wild tonal incoherence is a big problem, one that ranges from a huge bother to a mild annoyance, but never quite leaves the film entirely. I don't suppose that Ne Zha can rightfully be considered more than a successful kids' movie, after all of this; except that, somehow, it also has some amazingly ambitious visuals. And, to be sure, amazingly inconsistent visuals: the character animation is never particularly great, and most of the humans' flesh feels stiff and flat, like they've been molded rather than grown. But there's some magnificent effects animation, and the film is substantially made up of effects animation: besides its sprawling range of lighting (everything from menacing thunderstorms to starry nights to glorious spring days), the film has monstrous slime, ocean spray, glistening dragon scales, shards of ice, rolling fog, and enough particle animation to fill a well-rendered beach. It's not flawless (the fire animation is blatantly artificial), but it's dazzling and beautiful.

Even more dazzling and beautiful is the film's hungry embrace of a floating, flying camera. There's an action setpiece - the fart-driven one, as it happens - that involves some of the most dizzying high-speed choreography of characters, camera perspective, and a moving watery environment that I've ever seen, and it's not the only place where the film straps the camera to some physically-impossible vantage point and sends it careening around a busy environment. I exaggerate not at all when I claim that I can't name any big-budget American sequence that's so eager to show how the animated camera can do things that are totally unimaginable in live-action, a deeply exciting and exhilarating example of the purest spectacle. There's go-for-broke, look-what-we-can-do energy here that can compete with any other animated film I can name, and it's alone sufficient to make Ne Zha one of the most impressive feats of the medium in 2019.