The animated movie Abominable is experiencing a geopolitical snowball effect of its own making after a scene in the movie showing the contested South China Sea has angered a growing number of Southeast Asian countries.
Abominable is a coproduction between DreamWorks Animation and the Shanghai-based Pearl Studio, and the controversy surrounding the movie marks the latest twist in Hollywood’s close relationship with China, which has come under scrutiny following months of pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
Studios including the Walt Disney Company have been criticized for maintaining warm ties with authoritarians in Beijing while remaining silent on the Hong Kong issue.
Abominable tells the story of a Chinese girl who befriends a massive Yeti, or abominable snowman, and embarks on a journey to reunite the creature with its family.
The scene in question shows a map of the South China Sea and the controversial “nine-dash line,” which China uses to show the extent of its territorial claims in the contested waters.
— CNA (@ChannelNewsAsia) October 17, 2019
As a result of the map, Abominable has been yanked from cinemas in Vietnam after screen shots of the scene were posted on social media. Officials in Malaysia have banned the movie altogether after the distributor refused a request to cut the scene. The Philippines government has also objected to the movie.
The South China Sea has been a major source of contention between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors for decades. In 2016, an international tribunal in the Hague ruled that China can’t claim rights to most of the sea, a decision that China rejected.
Other countries that dispute China’s claims include Brunei and Taiwan.
In the past decade, Hollywood studios have developed increasingly close business ties with China, which is the world’s second largest movie market.
Authorities in Beijing put strict limits on the number of foreign films that can be shown on local screens, and studios hoping to land their moves in those coveted slots have grown increasingly wary of offending Chinese censors.
To help secure a release in China, Hollywood studios will often partner with a Chinese company to co-produce a movie, which is what the Comcast-owned DreamWorks Animation did in the case of Abominable.
The entertainment industry’s appeasement of China’s Communist Party has become so pronounced that the animated series South Park recently lampooned the issue in a recent episode, “Band in China.”
Disney’s ESPN recently forbade its journalists from discussing the Hong Kong protests while on air, after the Houston Rockets general manager expressed support for the pro-democracy demonstrators.
Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger recently said that “caution is imperative” when discussing China and that taking a position that could harm the company would be “a big mistake.”
Abominable has grossed a lackluster $54.6 million in the U.S. since being released last month. Ironically, the movie has been a box-office disappointment in China, bringing in just $14.8 million since opening earlier this month.