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UPDATED: March 31, 2012 NO. 14 APRIL 5, 2012
Now in Technicolor
China becomes the world's largest producer of animated films, but raising quality remains a challenge
By Bai Shi

CUTE CARTOON: Children gather around life-sized characters at a theatrical production of Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf (YUAN HONGWEI)

For those who grew up in China during the 1980s, domestic animated films from that era are precious and irreplaceable memories of their childhood.

A number of homegrown cartoons, such as Stories of Avanti, and Adventures of Shuke and Beita, were immensely popular and from 6:30 p.m. every evening, children across the country would sit glued to their televisions watching the latest installments of their favorite shows.

Despite this early success and their place in the hearts of a generation of children, China's animation industry never lived up to its early promise. Many of the series were discontinued and the current generation of children has barely heard of well-known characters from the 1980s or 90s, such as Calabash Boys and Detective Black Cat, instead they are more familiar with Kung Fu Panda, The Incredibles or a host of other characters from Western animation studios.

In contrast with these animated superstars from overseas, young Chinese audiences failed to be impressed by the homegrown cartoons.

However, the last few years have seen some positive changes in the country's animation industry. According to the Investment Analysis and Perspective Report of the Chinese Animation Industry (2011-15) published by CIConsulting, an industry research institution, based in Shenzhen, south China's Guangdong Province, in December 2011, China produced 78 animated feature films and 1,266 animated TV series with a total run-time of 707,614 minutes between 2006 and 2010, overtaking Japan as the largest producer of animation in the world.

Last year, the Chinese animation industry demonstrated stronger growth. Many cities, such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, have established animation industry bases and a mature industry chain including animation, comics, video games, toys and other derivative products, is being established. Animation is emerging as a new engine of Chinese economic growth and cultural development.

Despite the huge quantity, China's animation industry is only just becoming established globally and its cartoons are a long way from having the influence of Japanese manga.

Good effort

On January 12, 2012, the homegrown animated feature Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf—Mission Incredible: Adventures on the Dragon's Trail earned 20 million yuan ($3.16 million) on the first day of its release, breaking the box-office record for a domestic animated film and continuing the excellent performance of the Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf movie series at the box office. As of February 5, the latest installment of the Pleasant Goat series had earned 160 million yuan ($25.3 million) in the Chinese market.

The original version of the big screen blockbuster, the Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf TV series, has been the top rated animated TV series in China since it was launched by Creative Power Entertaining (CPE), based in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong, in 2005. Pleasant Goat (or xi yangyang) has become one of the most popular cartoon images and licensed brands in China.

The series owes its popularity to a fresh animation style, engaging stories and appealing characters.

In addition, CPE has developed numerous derivative products from the series, everything from comic books and toys to costumes and stationery. Its commercial success has endured for seven years and demonstrates the enormous potential of the Chinese animation industry.

While progress has been made, a wide gap still exists between domestic animation and the leading Hollywood animated blockbusters.

Another Chinese animated feature The Dreams of Jinsha produced by Hangzhou C & L Production Co. Ltd., a private studio in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province, captured international attention last year with its use of sophisticated graphic design, excellent screenplay and a distinctive Chinese theme.

The film was screened at some well-known international film festivals including the Festival de Cannes 2010 and the New York International Children's Film Festival 2011. It also made the short list for nomination to the 83rd Academy Award's Best Animated Feature in 2011. Though the film failed to be nominated, it was the first time a Chinese animated film attracted attention at the Oscars.

Broad cooperation

While China's animation industry remained isolated through much of the 1980s and 90s, domestic animators are now paying more attention to international cooperation as a means of improving their quality. The vast potential of the Chinese market is also attracting more overseas animation companies.

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