A sword swings high above the neck of a baby – a not-so-adorable Chucky lookalike with a mark on his forehead, like a malignant little Harry Potter. This PG fantasy animation from China features all the mild peril you’d expect from a family-rated movie – plus a smirking demon child. There were howls of terror from a little kid at the screening I attended.
China’s highest-grossing movie so far this year tells the origin tale of Ne Zha, a demon born to human parents. His father, a lord, refuses to have him killed at birth, despite a prophecy that Ne Zha will wreak destruction on humanity. Instead, the child is locked up behind an invisible force field, though he repeatedly escapes to duff up local children. An outcast, Ne Zha is hated and feared by villagers and pelted with rotten fruit. Like Superman’s dad in Man of Steel, his parents want to protect him from prejudice, and there’s emotional resonance in these scenes. Elsewhere, the characterisation borrows the likable goofiness of Hollywood family entertainment.
I enjoyed the jolt of strangeness delivered by this world of demons stalking the Earth. But the action is hit-and-miss. There’s an exceptionally good scene as Ne Zha fights off a sea monster that turns its enemies into stone. (The antidote involves a yucky, slimy bodily fluid.) If only the rest of the action sequences had the same energy and lightness of touch.
Director Jiao Zi likes to pile it on, with bloodthirsty fight scenes thundering to a deafening chaotic climax. It probably helps to go in with a couple of paracetamols.
• Ne Zha is released in the UK on 6 September.