What kinds of movies did you first start watching in your native language?
Serious, tear-jerker dramas? Complex narrative-driven movies with overlapping plots?
I’m guessing it was more along the lines of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
You started your movie-watching career with fun animated movies. So if you’re ready to start watching movies in Chinese, why should it be any different?
There are tons of Chinese animated movies out there that’ll take your vocabulary and listening comprehension skills for a spin. Plus, as you’ll see below, just because they’re cartoons doesn’t mean they’re simplistic. Animated movies in Chinese touch on everything from environmentalism to microbiology.
Sound interesting? Then grab some popcorn!
Why Watch Animated Movies?
There are so many amazing movies in Mandarin Chinese to explore—why focus on animated ones? Well, this genre has some particular advantages to offer language learners:
- Animated movies exaggerate. The anthropomorphic characters usually have wild facial expressions that make the general mood unmistakable. Music also sets the tone in a more overt way than you’d typically find in other types of movies. There are just more non-linguistic cues about what’s going on (and who’s a bad guy) in animated movies than live-action films.
That means you’ll be able to pick up tons of new words and phrases in context, and you can concentrate fully on the language without getting lost in the plot.
- Many animated movies come in a series. This has two advantages. First, you can quickly grow your library of animated Chinese content and spend less time digging for new material every time you finish a movie.
Second, you’ll become familiar with the basic plot structures, the characters, the narrators’ voices and inflections and the world the series takes place in. This makes it easier to focus on learning new vocabulary and solidifying your Chinese knowledge.
- Many animated movies are targeted to kids. As a result, most animated movies have a fairly simple structure. There are no flashbacks or other confusing plot devices. The stories are easy to follow without being boring.
- Animated movies are culturally important. Content geared toward children often permeates the culture in ways that adult content just doesn’t.
That’s because kids’ content typically gets more universal exposure among children of a given generation, before that generation grows up and starts diversifying their interests and tastes. So if you become familiar with content that’s kid-related, you’ll increase the cultural references you understand.
You Need to Watch These 5 Animated Chinese Movies
“Little Big Panda” — 熊猫总动员 (xióng māo zǒng dòng yuán)
The story: It’s getting harder and harder for pandas to survive. Humans continue to encroach on their home, the bamboo forests in China’s highlands. Pandas are huge, lumbering and cute… and also lazy. Is it possible that Manchu, a young panda, can save them all?
It looks that way, until an impending disaster is discovered: a new dam will flood the pandas’ home and destroy the panda family!
Language skills to target: This movie takes place in the bamboo forest, includes a lot of animals and discusses the panda ancestors. Therefore, you’ll be hearing a lot of vocabulary related to the natural world and to the idea of environmental protection, which is especially useful for your conversational skills as climate change becomes a more and more pressing issue.
To get the most out of this movie, brush up on animal vocabulary, plant vocabulary and vocabulary related to natural/manmade disasters.
The story: The SEER series is based on an online video game. The year is 2110, and the earth’s non-renewable resources have been exhausted. Pollution is so bad that it’s threatening humankind’s survival. In the hopes of averting total Armageddon, a group of scientists have created the Space Energy Robot, or SEER.
Language skills to target: As you can guess, this series also has a strong environmental theme. You’ll encounter a lot of vocabulary related to natural resources and to pollution. There’s a futuristic element as well, so you’ll pick up vocabulary related to computers, robots and artificial intelligence—anyone who plans to use their Chinese skills in the fields of science or technology might be particularly interested in this one.
This is an apocalyptic series as well, though. So expect some end-of-days talk.
The story: “Boonie Bears” started out as a TV show that became immensely popular and was subsequently turned into a series of movies. The general premise, once again, is environmental. 熊大 (xióng dà) and 熊二 (xióng èr) are two bears working to prevent loggers from destroying their forest. (Their names have been translated as Briar and Bramble in English versions of the movie, but the literal translation would be “elder bear” and “second eldest bear.”)
The first movie in the series, “Boonie Bears: To the Rescue,” is one of the highest grossing animated films in mainland China.
Language skills to target: The first “Boonie Bears” movie focuses on themes ranging from parenting a little girl to collaborating with an enemy. In addition to the forest/logging vocabulary, expect a lot of family-related words, as the bears become adoptive dads of an abandoned girl.
Unlike some of the animated movies in China, the “Boonie Bears” series has been dubbed into English. That makes the series uniquely useful as an entry point for watching Chinese animated movies. You can watch the movie dubbed into English (or with English subtitles) first, so that you can get familiar with the storyline and characters.
Then watch the original version, and you’ll be able to focus on the language without worrying that you’ll lose the plot line if you don’t understand something.
Other movies in the “Boonie Bears” series include “Boonie Bears: Mystical Winter” — 熊出没之雪岭熊风 (xióng chū mò zhī xuě lǐng xióng fēng) and “Boonie Bears III” — 熊出没之熊心归来 (xióng chū mò zhī xióng xīn guī lái).
The story: Like the “Boonie Bears” series, the “Pleasant Goat” movies are based on a popular children’s cartoon of the same name. As the name hints, this series features a group of happy goats and a clumsy goon of a wolf who tries to eat them.
In the first “Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf” movie, “The Super Snail Adventure,” there’s a major bacterial war going on inside the body of Granny Snail, the goats’ friend. The goats want to save their friend Granny Snail, so they shrink themselves to bacterial size and enter Granny Snail’s body. What a surprise to find that the enemy bacteria are led by their usual nemesis, Big Big Wolf!
Language skills to target: Because of that wild plot, “The Super Snail Adventure” will expose you to all kinds of terminologies. You’ll find vocabulary related to domestic animals, but also expect warfare vocabulary and vocabulary about the bacterial kingdom, as this whole movie takes place on a microscopic scale.
Other movies in the Pleasant Goat series include “Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf: Full of Vigor” — 喜羊羊与灰太狼之虎虎生威 (xǐ yáng yáng yǔ huī tài láng zhī hǔ hǔ shēng wēi) and “Moon Castle: The Space Adventure” — 喜羊羊与灰太狼之兔年顶呱呱 (xǐ yáng yáng yǔ huī tài láng zhī tù nián dǐng guā guā).
“The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven” — 大闹天宫 (dà nào tiān gōng)
The story: This animated film from the 1960s (the link above is for a re-released 3-D version) is based on the classic Ming Dynasty novel “Journey to the West.”
The Monkey King breaks his sword during a military parade and, frustrated with his lack of a weapon suitable for a king, goes on a search for a kingly sword. His quest brings him into conflict with neighboring kings and, ultimately, with the gods in heaven. Is the Monkey King up to a full-on war with the gods? There are pills of immortality, magical weapons and feuding gods galore.
Language skills to target: This movie is older and much more classical. You’ll need to brush on up more archaic vocabulary, which can make it a bit difficult to understand. It’s probably not the first one you’ll want to start with! But it’s a great introduction to classic Chinese literature and the classical Chinese worldview.
In addition to the more archaic vocabulary, expect vocabulary related to magical powers, gods, immortality and the “celestial kingdoms” in general.
Inspired to jump into watching Chinese animated films? There are a couple of places to find these (and other) animated movies. You can look at FluentU’s selection of Mandarin Chinese movies for authentic content that comes with interactive captions and in-context definitions. Youku (the Chinese version of YouTube) is also a great resource for finding Chinese movies of all kinds. So is CCTV.
One last thing about Chinese animated films. They’re great to watch with the children in your life! If you’ve got kids, learning Chinese can be something you do with them, not after they’ve gone to bed.
So there’s really no reason to put off watching animated films in Chinese!
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