The Legend of Hei, hailing from China where it struck box office gold, replicates a very smooth and specific style of 2D animation. Studio Ghibli would be proud of the lushness and splendid rendering that puts thrilling Chinese landmarks on full display, while centering solely on the richness of the characters and their relationships. The tender sensibilities of Ghibli are combined with the urgency and action of modern animated films, like Big Hero 6, to craft a unique tale unlike any you’ve seen before.
This is a world full of spirits (Yao), and the one we follow is shapeshifting, cute cat Hei. After his home deep in the forest has been destroyed, Hei comes upon two different worlds: the first of Fengxi, a headstrong spirit with a welcoming family of fellow spirits; the second is the world of Wuxian from “the guild” who is trying to shape a peaceful coexistence between humans and the Yao. Hei must learn to master his powers of metal and to discover which of these groups has his best interests at heart. Who is truly the villain?
I had no clue this was based on a web series before watching. Creator and director MTJJ devoted 5 years to fully expand the scope and breadth of this tale into something so defined and complex. What is clear is that spending so much time in this world clearly gave MTJJ the spark he needed to eloquently deliver the narrative in a clear and concise way. Even when the action takes center stage during the final act, The Legend of Hei never loses its character-based focus or attention to detail.
The Legend of Hei is ultimately a beautiful film, and especially one that anime fans will obsess over. The wonderful friendship between Hei and Wuxian as it evolves during the course of the film is simply stunning. The two leads have so much chemistry between each other. I never thought I’d watch an animated film that so specifically captures the true meaning and value of chosen family quite like this one.
The Legend of Hei screened at the Seattle International Film Festival, April 8th – April 18th, 2021. The film will be available digitally on April 20th, and can be purchased on May 11th on Blu-ray/DVD.