New Gods: Nezha Reborn review: Netflix’s animated epic is intense but tragic

As wish-fulfillment power dreams go, learning you’re privately a reincarnated god appears like a quite pleasing one. In Netflix’s imported 2021 Chinese function Brand-new Gods: Nezha Reborn, that discovery comes with a great deal of advantages: the capability to make it through deadly injuries, the abrupt introduction of kick-ass martial-arts powers, the regard and interest of the regional power-players, and above all, the capability to drizzle down fire on any rude opponents. For a street kid searching for his location in an overbearing city run by a greedy criminal offense gang, those all appear like game-changing advantages, a limitless advantage in a world where couple of individuals have the strength to withstand the dominant order.

However power in this type of story undoubtedly comes with a cost, and Nezha Reborn gets to the cost rapidly and definitively. The story, which restores and rewords a handful of exceptionally popular characters from Chinese folklore, end up concentrating on the issues godlike power can’t repair as much as it concentrates on the ones where white-hot cleaning fire is useful. For all the eye-popping fights and fast-moving action, it’s a psychological story that makes the effort to explore what its lead character actually desires out of life, and why god-tier power might be as much of a concern as an advantage.

Director Ji Zhao, who formerly helmed the 2019 CGI function White Snake, opens New Gods: Nezha Reborn with a fast summary of the universes: 3 thousand years back, the world remained in mayhem, with humankind and gods warring amongst themselves. The gods battled to develop a brand-new hierarchy, which ultimately brought the world into a queasy balance. However specific gods are constantly aiming to much better their position. In Donghai City, a neon-drenched modern town with a strongly retro vibe, four clans rule over the people, and in particular, control the limited water supply. As Ao Bing, the third son of De Clan’s intimidating patriarch, says early on, keeping the town in need gives the poor something to focus on and keeps them in line: “Full bellies foster random thoughts.”

A bandaged, shirtless Li Yunxiang has an emotional moment in New Gods: Nezha Reborn

Image: Netflix via Polygon

Keeping the people’s bellies empty means creating artificial water shortages, which creates a niche for water smugglers like Li Yunxiang, a young man with a hot temper and a Robin Hood ethos toward to the suffering slum-dwellers. Early on, screenwriter Mu Chuan lays out Yunxiang’s tangled problems: a father who hates his choices and holds him in contempt; a fussy brother who worries about him and tries to bring him to heel; an employer who leads him into danger; a love interest whose name he doesn’t even know; a girl who’s a bit like a possessive but pushy sister. Yunxiang builds and races motorcycles in his spare time, which lets Nezha Reborn launch with a Ready Player One-style manic street competition that defies the laws of physics, and gives Yunxiang something small and specific to care about in a world full of much larger and louder concerns.

But then Yunxiang and Ao Bing face off over Yunxiang’s bike, in a set of sequences somewhere between Akira and the early inciting incident in John Wick. As the rich, spoiled scion of Donghai City’s primary ruler, Ao Bing naturally thinks anything his eyes fall on should be his. Yunxiang disagrees. In rapid order, what starts as a small but potentially fatal conflict over respect and a bike becomes a literal god-level battle, as Yunxiang discovers his secret heritage and power. Problem is, after his violent exaltation, he has no idea how to access or control his new abilities, and he has to seek help among the other secret powers of the world.

That process involves some extremely rich and engaging animation. Nezha Reborn’s CG-animated characters hover just a little too close to realistic to be entirely convincing; they tend to edge into the uncanny valley, rather than being more cartoonish in the way of the CG leads in movies like Lupin III: The First or How to Train Your Dragon. But the world around those characters is stylish and vividly designed, in everything from shining skyscrapers to mythological beasties to the glowing avatars that loom behind god-incarnate warriors when they draw on their heavenly powers. That opening race sequence is show-offy, compete with Yunxiang breaking the fourth wall to brag to the audience, but it sets the stage for a world that keeps visually escalating, falling deeper and deeper into fantasy with each new battle and each wild new setting.

Li Yunxiang confronts his three-headed, six-armed fiery Nezha avatar in New Gods: Nezha Reborn

Image: Netflix via Polygon

New Gods: Nezha Reborn draws heavily on pan-Asian folklore and myth for its narrative spine. Nezha in particular has been a popular character for centuries, evolving from god to general to child to spirit in myths as disparate as the 16th-century novel Journey to the West, China’s 1979 animated hit Nezha Conquers the Dragon King, and the 2019 Chinese CGI feature Nez Ha, also currently streaming on Netflix. (That film takes a much more slapstick-driven approach to Nezha’s heavenly guardians in particular, and the visual approach starts off cartoony and child-centered compared to Nezha Reborn. But it eventually develops its own resonant emotional drama and staggering action sequences. The two films make an enjoyable double feature, just to see two radically different interpretations of the same classic characters.)

But in the New Gods incarnation, Nezha takes an almost literal back seat to Yunxiang, whose concerns are grounded and human. He wants to help his suffering people, and he wants to earn his father’s respect. And once his powers emerge, he has to face the fact that he’s dangerous to the people he cares about. The powers he’s channeling and the spirit within him are destructive and volatile rather than healing or nurturing. The story follows a track that’s familiar in Western animation and Western video games: Yunxiang inevitably finds bigger bosses to fight at periodic intervals, and levels up with every new conflict. But he’s never entirely free to think of his war as satisfying, pure, or righteous, the way so many power-tree-climbing Western heroes do. Even as a temperamental young man whose enemies are grasping, underhanded, and inhuman, he has to pause to consider the physical and emotional cost of his actions.

Li Yunxiang is pushed against a wall by a figure in a snarling, monster-esque mask

Image: Netflix via Polygon

And when he inevitably fails in places, that failure hits hard. Nezha Reborn is a startlingly emotional story, one that finds time between explosive battles to let Yunxiang weep over his losses, and ponder his place in the universe. The filmmakers similarly find time to let his allies and enemies engage with each other, mulling over the past and the way their relationships have evolved over the eons. For a two-hour action movie, Nezha Reborn is startlingly dense and effective, and even surprisingly moving.

Like most fables, it eventually comes down on the predictable side of the cost-of-power debate. Ultimately, Yunxiang decides, having the ability to fight and change the world is much better than being powerless and afraid. It’s a logical enough conclusion, even outside the boundaries of fantasy stories involving reincarnating gods and dragons. However New Gods: Nezha Reborn actually takes the time to give the question some serious thought, which makes it a much richer and more gratifying story than the usual magical-martial-arts throwdown.

New Gods: Nezha Reborn and Nez Ha are presently streaming on Netflix.

Jobber Wiki author Frank Long contributed to this report.