What do audiences want to see more — an almost-20-year-old hand-drawn animated feature or a brand-new cg animated feature? That exact scenario played out in China last weekend and you may be surprised by the answer: audiences unequivocally chose hand-drawn animation.

The two films were Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 feature Spirited Away, which was receiving its first theatrical release in China, and Disney-Pixar’s Toy Story 4.

Miyazaki’s film landed in first place with $28.6 million, more than doubling the opening of TS4, which grossed $13.7 million in second place.

Hollywood business outlets are struggling to understand how a hand-drawn film could outperform cg animation. Variety speculated today that the reason that Spirited Away performed better than TS4 was because Chinese exhibitors devoted more screens to the former than latter (Spirited Away took over 30% of China’s screens, while TS4 had 18%).

Whereas American theatrical studios have all but abandoned hand-drawn animation, the performance of Miyazaki’s film is your regular reminder that hand-drawn animation remains popular elsewhere in the world, even in head-to-head competition with cg films. This is far from a one-time phenomenon: in 2016, Big Fish & Begonia scored $85 million in China, and later that same year, the Japanese 2d feature Your Name earned $83 million.

And both of those impressive figures pale in comparison to how well hand-drawn animation performs in Japan, where 2d films regularly top the box office. Your Name earned $235 million in its 2016 theatrical release at home, and last year, four hand-drawn animated features appeared in the top 20 annual earners, the same number as cg animated features.

"Spirited Away" poster made for China's release.
“Spirited Away” poster made for China’s release.

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