HONG KONG – For the past week, the mainland Chinese public couldn’t avoid hearing about American Dreams in China however hard they tried.
Serious social commentators have waxed lyrical about the film’s representation of the country’s changing collective psyche in the past three decades, while the entertainment pages run constant reports about the cast and crew’s nationwide promotional blitz – which has helped propel the film to more than 55 percent of total ticket-sales earnings in China for the past week.
While director Peter Chan Ho-sun could revel in his film's runaway financial success -- American Dreams has already taken $50.8 million (311.5 million yuan) since it opened in mainland China on May 17, according to figures released by Chinese media consultants Entgroup -- an American, DreamWorks-backed vehicle is slowly making a killing at the box office away from the limelight.
Entgroup's statistics reveal that The Croods has taken another $5.1 million (31.3 million yuan) in the Chinese box office from May 19-26. While the figure appears minimal compared to that of American Dreams, it’s worth noting that the animated film was already in the sixth week of its run in the country -- and its earnings last week were actually greater than Oblivion ($4.3 million/26.6 million yuan). It boasts a higher average attendance than the other imports, with 32 per screening on Sunday, for example, compared to Oblivion (23) and Iron Man 3 (22), according to Entgroup’s figures.
The Croods’ sustained performance in China largely stems from the widespread acclaim it received via online word-of-mouth. The film didn’t make a splashy bow in the country when it opened April 13; contrary to market trends, its earnings actually increased in the next two weeks, culminating in its third-week takings of $20 million (122.7 million yuan). While takings fell by more than 50 percent the next week (to $9.5 million/58.1 million yuan), subsequent dips were not as drastic: It took $6.4 million (39 million yuan) the week after, and then $5.1 million last week.
While it's now nearly impossible for The Croods to match the box office success of the highest-grossing animation film ever released in China – that’s Kung Fu Panda 2, which took $99.2 million (608.4 million yuan) in 2010 – the latest blockbuster's slow but long-burning success has already alerted cinephiles and officials alike about the chasm in quality between these imports and homegrown productions.
In an article titled “Domestic Animation Films Urgently Need to Discover High-Class Children-Friendly Fun,” the widely read, state-backed Beijing Youth Daily has criticized local productions as slanting towards the “infantile” and catering to young children only.
“They are not like The Croods, which could be released amidst blockbusters and still bring in adult viewers,” said the piece, which was reposted on the government-run National Animation Industry website.
The writer was referring to the common practice of releasing domestically produced animation films to coincide with the Chinese Children's Day on June 1; this year, three will be unspooled around that date: Kuiba II, Happy Little Submarine 3: Rainbow Treasure and The Adventures of Sinbad 2013.
While the poster art and sypnoses -- if not the titles themselves -- of these films hardly sound original and surprising, there is a distinct lack of anticipation for them too. On douban.com, one of China's most-visited film portals, the people who gave Submarine and Sinbad "likes" number to 112 and 71 (to put this in context, Star Trek In Darkness received more than 19,300 votes).
The Beijing Youth Daily piece also pointed to how domestic animation producers have resorted to “violence to make up for the lack of intellect in their films,” referring to a recent case in which a 9-year-old schoolboy seriously injured two of his friends when he tied them to a tree and set them on fire in order to imitate a scene he saw in the popular Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf animation series.
“Today, although some animators understand their creative weakness, they could not use their creativity to produce fulfilling psychological and sensorial experiences for their viewers -- they can only use violence and conflict to enhance the dramatic nature of their work,” the piece continued. “By trying to appease adult viewers this way, animation films have veered away from being young at heart -- they actually hurt the young’s hearts by navigating dangerous, lost journeys on screen.”