Sunday, March 13, 2016

NYICFF ’16: Little Door Gods

They are sort of like lawn gnomes, except they have serious action cred. Traditional Chinese door gods are either threshold figurines, or as in the case of the old school restaurant operated by Raindrop’s grandmother, colorful New Years’ posters portraying mythological heroes. They bring luck to those who hang them in our world and sustaining karma to the depicted demigods in the spirit realm. Unfortunately, the soulless materialism of our day and age has caused an economic crisis in the spirit world. The worlds will collide in Gary Wang’s animated 3D feature Little Door Gods (trailer here), which screened at this year’s New York International Children’s Film Festival.

Raindrop’s grandmother has the last poster of two once popular door god brothers affixed to the entrance of her similarly once popular wonton house. In the spirit world, the handsome Yu Lei and the portly Shen Tu guard a mystical mountain, because that is the strange sort of gig that used to be readily available for door gods. Unfortunately, they have been put on probationary notice. They are required to attend mandatory retraining sessions and present themselves for a midnight roll call (evidently, these recessionary rituals have particular resonance on the Mainland, but Westerners definitely ought to get the general drift).

Meanwhile, a predatory nouveau riche fast food franchisee is conspiring to sabotage the restaurant Raindrop’s mother will soon inherit. She had a hard time of it in Beijing, so she wants to stay in her hometown and make a go of things, even though Raindrop feels lonely and isolated there. However, the little girl will forge a connection with both door gods when each happens to save her from a roving pack of rabid mutts. Yu Lei has come to unleash the Nian, a legendary monster that darned near destroyed both worlds before it was trapped behind three seals. He figures mortals might start to appreciate the gods again if they save them from the apocalyptic beast. It’s a really ill-conceived plan, but sometimes there’s no talking to a demigod. Shen Tu followed Yu Lei across hoping to dissuade from his mad scheme, but he gets sidetracked helping Raindrop and her mother save and maybe even slightly modernize the family business.

There is much that is familiar about LDG, but there are a number of neat little variations. Having the less dashing door god serve as the primary, uncompromised hero is a particularly nice change-up. Yet, it is the specific Chinese cultural currents, both ancient and contemporary, running through the film that really elevate and enrich it. Most viewers should easily pick up on the class inequities, bureaucratic arrogance, and contempt for tradition that combine to jeopardize our new favorite wonton house. The door gods themselves and the correspondence between the human and spirit worlds are also deeply rooted in ancient folklore.

First time helmer Wang’s animation team (several of whom were headhunted from Pixar and DreamWorks) has created some lively and reasonably expressive figures as well as a few truly eye-popping fantastical backdrops. It always looks as good as any Hollywood studio animation release and has a handful of Ghibli worthy moments.

Raindrop and Shen Tu are each also very sympathetic characters, who are easy to identify with, regardless of cultural backgrounds. Thanks to them, LDG could very well appeal to boys and girls equally well. It has a good heart, a healthy energy level, and some cautious criticism of China’s oligarchical crony-capitalism. Recommended rather affectionately, Little Door Gods should have a long festival life ahead of it, following its screenings at this year’s New York International Film Festival (which by the way, screens the terrific Case of Hana and Alice today and next Sunday).