Stories as old as time; A fallen hero seeks redemption through one last mission. In “New Gods: Yang Jian,” the titular hero is actually a god, who now scrapes by as a mercenary. When a mysteriously seductive singer asks her to find a family member, the adventure becomes personal. The sequel to “New Gods: Neza Reborn” released in the US on Netflix – “Yang Jian” offers lively and exciting animation that matches traditional Chinese mythology to deliver an entertaining film. American audiences who picked up the previous entry on streaming will have the chance to catch the sequel on the big screen, available in both Mandarin and English-dubbed versions courtesy of GKIDS.
Although the story may be familiar, the animation manages to create a thrilling scene: expressive, sometimes fantastically colorful and full of detail. Every side character and creature is so painstakingly rendered, it’s hard for the viewer to take in the whole frame. Still, it’s nice to have a little luxury. There’s also humor in how some of these animals and their on-screen movements are drawn: Yang’s legs catch fire as he jumps high, and his canine companion foams red liquid from his mouth when he gets excited or angry. Such details add welcome wit to the narrative.
To catch the audience so far, the back story of “New Gods: Yang Jian” has been broadcast as if from beyond. Grave’s voiceover recalls Cate Blanchett’s otherworldly narration at the beginning of “The Lord of the Rings,” though the premise here is much shorter. Perhaps this is the reason it was used again in the film. Only then does it become less effective, as if the filmmakers couldn’t find another way to resolve the story. Even the animation in that sequence looks less vibrant and detailed.
The story escalates when Yang (voiced by Wang Kai) is pitted against his nephew Chengjiang (Li Lanling), revealing an intergenerational rift that is relatable. Chengxiang blames Yang for his estrangement from his mother and everything that has happened to him for struggling to live on his own. Their relationship is brilliantly realised, moving from hostility to understanding at war. As the hero and his nephew take stock of each other, the animators take the time to register all these conflicting emotions on the faces of the characters and thus hit the emotional climax of the story.
The screenplay, credited to Chuan Moo, takes these common fairy tale elements that advance traditional values and creates a thrilling adventure out of them. It complicates the straightforward hero’s journey by adding many characters and obstacles to Yang’s path. Characters and creatures are so numerous that their role in the story is not always clear. Some are so familiar from such fables — like the wise old man who advises sages — that they become predictable archetypes. Such tangents and characters overwhelm the narrative, making it difficult to understand. Ultimately it’s a family story, full of intergenerational tension, resentment and love. Like any other family. It’s true that the members of this family have been embroiled in a decade-long war with each other because it’s their curse that they’re gods of supernatural powers.
“New Gods: Yang Jian” is a fine addition to the New Gods saga with impressive animation that fills the frame with details that illuminate the narrative. Ironically, this can be too much of a good thing, as the story is packed with characters and subplots, making it overwhelming to comprehend. An unnecessarily extended finale pushes the running time to over two hours, testing the audience’s patience. Sometimes knowing when to end is a filmmaker’s greatest skill.