A Chinese Ghost Story Anime Review
US Release By
Fantastical childrens' romantic action-adventure
In China of days past, a young man is traveling the countryside collecting on old debts. But the rustic countryside is a land full of ghosts, along with a few eccentric exorcists bent on getting rid of them and showing each other up. In one corner is a boisterous fellow by the name of Redbeard and his giant ghost-busting mecha, and in the other is White Cloud and his sidekick, two monks with a passion for wiping out wayward spirits. When our intrepid traveler and his mutt happen upon a passel of spirits, he's saved and warned by one of those exorcists, but he's never been very good at following maps, and he finds himself in a ghost town that's quite crowded... with ghosts. In addition to the sights and sounds of the "city," the young fellow meets a rather pretty dead girl who is "dead" set (sorry) on grabbing his soul for her employer. But there's something more than that between them, and their bond will take them on one heck of a ride...
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This animated adaptation of the popular series of live action movies is something like a cross between a Disney feature and the Beetlejuice cartoon. Its strengths are the sweet pair of main characters, a constant sense of motion, and several attractive action scenes involving 3D-enhanced chases and flights. On the down side, the rather jumpy story is fittingly broad and simple for a children's movie, the ghosts are largely uncreative, there are a few half-hearted musical numbers tossed in, and the computer generated backgrounds (the characters are hand-drawn cels) have some rough edges.
Younger viewers might enjoy A Chinese Ghost Story, but although it has some nice characters, attractive art, and some interesting use of computer animation, the plot is weak and it has enough of the marks of a made-for-the-kids movie that it probably won't appeal to most older viewers, especially those expecting something more along the lines of Miyazaki's "kids" films; Spirited Away, it isn't.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
A Chinese Ghost Story is something like a children's animated version of the live action Hong Kong films of the same name. It is, not surprisingly, a largely Chinese production, though the visual style is basically anime and the plot enough so that it probably qualifies as such. That said, it seems more like a cross between a Disney feature and the Beetlejuice cartoon, with a semi-anime style and a heap of computer animation.
A Chinese Ghost Story feels like a kids' movie, and not in the grand all-ages sense of Miyazaki productions.1 The characters are broad, the villains obvious (with one significant exception), and the plot relatively simple and cheerful--this ghost story isn't a scary one. There are also several short musical numbers and a cute dog (who, thankfully, doesn't talk).
On the positive side of the production, I really like the two main characters and their relationship--somewhat antagonistic but still cute and sweetly romantic. The exorcists are also good; although their personalities are a bit over-the-top, their less-obvious-than-they-seem motives are more interesting than I initially expected.
Another strength is the film's constant-motion style, which is consistently exciting without getting frantic or tiring. Some of the mechanics of the spirit world--the reincarnation train in particular--are imaginative, too.
On the down side, the story is fittingly simple for a kids' movie; there's never much depth to the action, and much of the stuff in the ghost world that could have been scary or at least wild and whimsical ends up being weird for no good reason. That's where my comparison to Beetlejuice comes from; the wild-looking but basically uninteresting ghosts and normal-yet-bizarre settings (a walking staircase or a restaurant that serves human body parts, for example) remind me of that cartoon. Occasionally effective, but mostly these are pedestrian by weirdness standards.
A bigger flaw is the story's tendency to jump to new scenes without any segue at all. This makes the whole thing feel jerky, and a lot of the plot movement seems to happen without much rhyme or reason--the characters just end up somewhere because that's where they're supposed to be next. Perhaps this was intended as a nod to the functioning of the spirit world or some storytelling tradition, but if so it didn't work.
In all, the story should be engaging for younger kids, but it's too uneven for my grown-up taste.
Speaking of the kids, the handful of brief musical numbers feel like an afterthought, tacked on in an awkward attempt to Disney-ize the production. The action usually keeps moving (sometimes over the singing), and they all seem to get cut off midway. The songs are forgettable on top of it, so it really would have been better without them, but at least they're easy to ignore. I would have expected orchestral fare for the rest of the soundtrack, but the few pieces that are even noticeable are quiet and uninspired.
The visuals are the movie's strongest point, but, like the plot, are split between good and underwhelming. The weakest parts are the uninteresting ghosts--mutant things that are neither scary nor creative--and the colorful ghost city, which resembles a stylized carnival or neon-encrusted villa. The best of it is, ironically, simple, natural scenes of sunlit woods or water--they have a wonderful sense of almost superrealistic beauty. That's the one area where a Miyazaki/Ghibli comparison is both warranted and a compliment. The human (or human-like) character designs are also good, if a little more Disney than anime in some cases, and a few of the costumes are quite pretty.
The animation is interesting, as this is one of the earlier movies combining cel-based characters with largely computer-generated or -assisted backgrounds. The result is notably better than many other attempts from the same period (helped in part by good character animation), but some of the backgrounds are either too chaotic to look like anything at all (which isn't the fault of the technology) or so busy it's hard to make out the action. There is also some trouble with the cel-based characters lacking a firm "grip" on computer-generated surfaces or objects, but most of the time it works.
On the positive side, several chase sequences benefit from the computer animation; they are, in fact, some of the best parts of the movie. Those chases, along with a few flight sequences and a couple of exorcist-action scenes, provide more than enough quality action for the film.
The acting in the English dub isn't bad, but some of the characters are more over-the-top than necessary. It also seems like they're working very hard at making the English dialogue fit--there are several times I didn't see any mouths moving, and I wonder if some of the more obvious dialogue was even there to begin with. If they did add comments to help the kids follow the action, I doubt it was necessary. I haven't heard the original Chinese version to compare.
A Chinese Ghost Story is basically a Disney movie with an unusually weird premise and a little bit of anime spirit lifting it above the level it would have otherwise been stuck at. Younger viewers might enjoy it, but although it has some nice characters, attractive art, and occasionally interesting use of computer animation, the plot is weak and it has enough of the marks of a made-for-the-kids movie that it probably won't appeal to most older viewers, especially those expecting something more along the lines of Miyazaki's "kids" films.
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Has a lot of themes in common with Spirited Away, and to a lesser extent My Neighbor Totoro, both of which are much better. Also bears some resemblance to parts of Neo Tokyo, although only in visual style.
Notes and Trivia
A Chinese Ghost Story is based on a very popular series of live-action Hong Kong romantic-horror-comedy films with the same English title. Those films were, in turn, loosely based on an 18th century short story by Pu Songling, part of the "Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio" collection.
While the animated movie and its live action predecessors have the same title in English, the titles were different in the original Chinese. The live action ones were "Sinnui Yauman" (倩女幽魂; "Ghost of a Beautiful Woman"), while the animated one was apparently some kind of play on that, Xiao Qian (小倩; "Little Pretty").
The film was written, produced, and even edited by famed Hong Kong mogul Tsui Hark (who also has a voice cameo in it); he produced the original film trilogy.
According to Wikipedia, it is the first animated feature film produced in Hong Kong; the visual style is largely anime.
Footnote 1: I'm trying to avoid any Spirited Away comparisons; this film predates it by several years, and while there are some stylistic and thematic similarities--possibly even intentional nods--they're very different movies and Spirited Away is much better.
US DVD Review
The DVD features the English dub plus original Mandarin and Cantonese soundtracks, and English subtitles.
A few scenes that might scare very young kids, and there's a bit of romance, but pretty much suitable for any age.
Violence: 1 - There is a lot of action and a sense of danger, but other than the fact that everyone's already dead, there is a near zero body count.
Nudity: 0 - Nothing.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - A kiss or two.
Language: 0 - Nothing worth mentioning.