Reporting from Tianjin, China—Entering the campus of the largest animation production facility in China, visitors are greeted by life-size statues of Disney and Pixar characters: Belle dancing with the Beast, Mowgli and Baloo sitting on a tree trunk and Buzz and Woody in a classic buddy pose.
But this isn't an overseas outpost of the American studios. Instead, these knockoff statues are meant to inspire a new generation of Chinese animators to make films that can compete with Hollywood blockbusters and classics such as "Beauty and the Beast," "The Jungle Book" and "Toy Story."
Although the facility is managed by the government, film studios from across China can rent space and equipment at subsidized rates — incentives intended to encourage more cartoon production. A company or government agency can even simply present an idea, and animators at the facility will take care of the rest — though of course the content is subject to censorship rules. A number of private companies are expected to establish satellite offices at the park.
The campus boasts the latest in animation technology from around the world, including the largest motion-capture studio in Asia and what it says is the fastest rendering software in the world. Still, it remains to be seen whether China can overcome what even the facility's managers describe as a bigger problem: a dearth of artistic creativity.
"Chinese animators don't have their own thoughts," said Yang Ye, a business manager at the facility. "If you tell them to make something round, they'll make it round, but they won't ask, 'Why is this round?'"
The animation park is clearly a priority for the central government, which included animation production in its current five-year national economic plan. Having rapidly increased its political and economic might globally, China is eager to boost its so-called soft power — its cultural appeal and influence — overseas.
Government involvement in promoting the animation industry isn't new. In 2006, China's State Administration of Radio, Film and Television banned any foreign cartoons from being broadcast on TV between 5 and 8 p.m. The ban was extended to 9 p.m. in 2008. Some believe this ban was a major factor in the success of the TV show "Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf," China's most popular cartoon franchise, produced by Hong Kong-based Toon Express.
"Children only have a short amount of time to watch TV because their parents are constantly pushing them to study," Yang said. "When every channel is playing 'Pleasant Goat,' of course it's going to do well."
"Pleasant Goat" moved from TV into film. The third "Pleasant Goat" movie was released in China in January and is the top-grossing Chinese-made animated feature ever at $22.7 million, according to EntGroup, a Beijing entertainment research and consulting company. But that's still far behind the Chinese box-office receipts for other types of movies, including dramas and comedies, both foreign and domestic.
Given the rather measly box-office returns for Chinese-made cartoons, investors have been unwilling to spend a lot of money on such projects. That in turn results in films with low production values that are unpopular with the public. (In contrast, live-action films have seen the opposite trend in recent years, with budgets breaking the $100-million mark and investment coming from both private and government entities.)
One example is "Xibaipo," the only other animated feature in theaters at the same time as "Kung Fu Panda 2," produced by DreamWorks Animation SKG Inc. of Glendale.
"Xibaipo," which is the name of a village outside of Beijing, tells the story of a group of children in the midst of the People's Liberation Army's final push on Beijing during the Chinese civil war. The animation style is reminiscent of Disney's "Pocahontas" rather than "Kung Fu Panda's" computer-generated feel.
"Xibaipo" took in only $100,000 at the box office and was pulled from theaters after less than three weeks, compared with "Panda's" $94.9-million box-office take as of early August. This may stem from "Xibaipo's" dull and propagandistic story rather than the quality and technical competence of the animation.
Chinese firms buy the same technology as many American animation outfits, and a lot of postproduction work for U.S. animated films is already outsourced to China. Inside the Tianjin facility, large signs tout the technology on site, noting that the same equipment was used to make some of Hollywood's biggest animated films. (But even with the tools, a promotional video shown at the facility was jumpy and seemed unfinished.)
One major concern is that films produced at the Tianjin animation park ultimately will suffer from the same problems many live-action films have faced on the international market — mainly story lines that are too entrenched in Chinese culture to make them palatable to audiences abroad.
The $18-million "Legend of a Rabbit," which was made at a smaller animation facility in Tianjin, is China's most expensive animated feature to date. The movie, which arrived in theaters in July and took in $2.4 million in its first two weeks, centers on a hare because 2011 is the year of the rabbit in the Chinese zodiac; in all, a dozen films are planned over 12 years to celebrate each zodiac animal.
Chinese animation studios realize the dearth of originality and are trying to combat it by looking to box-office record holder "Avatar."
"A unique visual style and storytelling is a priority," said Jon Chiew, general manager of Crimson Forest Films, a Beijing company with an in-house animation studio that uses some of the same technology found at the Tianjin animation base. "We've adopted similar filmmaking techniques that were used in 'Avatar,' which allows for a more interesting visual style compared to prior locally made animated films."
Massive government investment in creative sectors has had some disappointing results in the past and in some cases has even harmed it.
"There's a lemming mentality where everyone is trying to follow government patronage," said Duncan Clark, president of Beijing research firm BDA China. "Too many people jump on the bandwagon and that actually ends up stifling creativity."
Although Chinese-made cartoons may receive preferential treatment in the domestic market, that coddling doesn't ensure that the characters will be popular with the public. A 2009 study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that only one of Chinese teens' favorite 20 animated characters came from China. All the others were Japanese.
Shanghai film critic Wu Renchu sees the industry constantly playing catch-up with animation developed overseas.
"U.S. and Japanese animated films have influenced young people in China and set the standard," Wu said. "When Chinese films don't live up to that level, they don't do well."
Still, if there's any question that this industry is looking to take down Hollywood titans, look no further than "Legend of a Rabbit." The story follows a rabbit, initially a cook with no kung fu knowledge, who learns quickly and must ultimately battle an evil kung fu master: a panda.