When Zheng Wenyi, 18, went with her boyfriend to a cinema in Beijing last week, she wanted to pick an interesting movie for their date. All the films showing appeared to be Chinese-made, but her eyes brightened when she saw a poster with a smiling red cartoon racecar.
"I thought it was the latest installment of 'Cars' from Disney," she said.
To her disappointment, the movie had nothing to do with the franchise from Disney's Pixar studios. Soon after the movie started, Zheng realized she and her boyfriend were alone in the 180-seat screening room except for one other person. The young couple quickly moved to the last row and started to kiss. Thirty minutes later, they left.
The movie in question was "The Autobots," produced by the animation studio Blue MTV in the southern Chinese city of Xiamen. Although the plot of "The Autobots" is not like "Cars," its protagonist bears a striking resemblance to the lead character from the Pixar film: From its eyelids to the way it smiles, K1 -- the main car from "The Autobots" -- looks almost identical to Lightning McQueen.
The movie has become the topic of a heated debate, with many Chinese film fans accusing the director of plagiarism.
"What the heck is this? Please try to compare your poster to the original one of 'Cars' from Disney," Lu Hengyu, an animation director, wrote in a mocking post on his official account on the social media platform Weibo. "You call these 'The Autobots'? Then I will make one called 'The Decepticons'!"
Thanks to government incentives, China has become the world's No. 1 animation production center by volume in the last decade, said Ying Zhu, a professor specializing in Chinese media at the City University of New York. But "quantity often comes at the expense of quality in production companies' rush to obtain subsidies and rewards," she said.
Though Zhu said she is "not at all surprised by the copycat nature of much of the audio-visual products out of China … it is still quite astonishing to witness the utter lack of creative imagination in 'The Autobots'' wholesale emulation of Disney-Pixar's 'Cars.'"
Chinese animation films have a long history of liberal appropriation. As far back as 2006, a movie called "The Chess King" was accused of ripping off Japanese anime titles.
Chinese authorities see animation as an area of film production where the country might be able to compete more quickly on a global scale. In 2004, Chinese authorities introduced a new rule requiring domestically produced animation programs to fill at least 60% of air time for all animation-related content on Chinese TV. And since September 2006, all Chinese TV networks have been allowed to only show domestically produced animation programs in prime time, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Around the same time, Zhu said, China's Ministry of Culture, the censorship bureau and other entities started to offer financial incentives, including direct subsidies and higher distribution fees, to production companies making animated films and TV programs.
For example, the local government in Xiamen, where the animation studio that made "The Autobots" is based, offers up to $483 for each minute of air time if a studio's animation content can be aired on national TV networks such as China Central Television. Such incentives have led to a proliferation of provincial- and municipal-level animation production centers.
But China has yet to produce a global animation hit -- even with some copycat techniques.
Zhuo Jianrong, the director of "The Autobots," has defended his movie and started a war of words on social media against those who have questioned it. Zhuo responded to Lu by calling him "shameless" and branded those who questioned his film "Chinese traitors" who must have "brain damage."
But his defiant attitude has seemed to backfire. The Shanghai-based East Day newspaper ran an editorial headlined "Made in China should not be the shield for 'The Autobots.'"
"If you think just because the movie is made domestically, all the people in China should support it unconditionally, this is blasphemy to the 'made in China' label," the paper said.
Box-office results for "The Autobots" have been underwhelming. According to figures from Beijing-based entertainment analysis firm EntGroup, the movie grossed a total of $900,000 in its first nine days in Chinese theaters, with an average viewership of four people per screening.
By late last week, no theaters in Shanghai were still showing this movie and only two theaters in Beijing carried the film, with only one screening each starting before noon. A total of five people, including the young teenage couple, bought tickets to watch the film last Thursday morning in the two theaters in Beijing visited by Los Angeles Times reporters.
Another Chinese-made animated film, "Monkey King: Hero Is Back" has fared much better at the box office this month. Released July 10, it set a record as the fastest domestic animated film to gross 200 million renminbi, or $32.2 million. According to film industry consulting firm Artisan Gateway, the movie has made more than $75 million and will likely surpass "Kung Fu Panda 2" as the highest-grossing animated film ever in China.
But its success comes with an asterisk -- China is in the midst of its annual summer "domestic movie protection month," when foreign films are restricted from Chinese theaters. That has kept potentially strong U.S. competitors such as Universal Pictures' "Minions," Pixar's "Inside Out" and Paramount Pictures' "Terminator Genisys" at bay.
Subsidies from Chinese authorities have indeed helped to attract more activity in animation production. According to data compiled by government-backed North Media Research, the total revenue of China's animation industry in 2014 reached $16.1 billion, more than double 2010's $7.6 billion.
Some Chinese animators including Tian Xiaopeng, director of "Monkey King: Hero is Back," say they have been working to change the image of domestic animated films.
"When it comes to domestically produced animations, people either feel they're just made for children, or don't have good quality," he told the Beijing-based movie review website mtime.com. "I just hope to make an animated film that can change their perception."
Zhu called "Monkey King: Hero Is Back" "raw in its story-telling and character design" and said it bows "to the rebellious individual heroism trope more typical of American animations."
But at least, she said, it adheres to China's own myths and folkloric traditions. And whatever similarities it might have with foreign productions, she added, do "not undermine its ambition and craft."