Cinemas in Shanghai have been forced to axe a film from screens over a scandal that may rate as one of the most shameful cases of plagiarism in film history.

Several of the city’s chains have scrapped showings of Chinese animated film The Autobots, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Pixar’s Cars franchise.

The unrepentant director of the film claims he has never seen the Pixar movies, while the animation firm involved claimed to have merely “studied” the original.

The Autobots
The Autobots (left) vs Cars (right). Photo: Shanghai Daily.

Shanghai cinema chains SFC CGV and SFC Yonghua have all cancelled screenings of the film in the wake of the plagiarism row.

Yonghua’s vice president Dai Guoping told Shanghai Daily that the movie was axed “because the quality [of the film] was too bad,” adding that “there’s now a copyright scandal as well.”

The Autobots is the tale of a young inventor who creates an “automotive intelligence system” that allows humans and automobiles to communicate.

Zhuo Jianrong, director of The Autobots, lashed out against his critics online. On China’s Twitter-like micoblog platform Weibo, he accused those who doubted the originality of his work of being “the new generation of traitors” to the Chinese nation.

In an interview with CNN, Zhuo claimed that he had never seen Cars and shot back, asking, “Aren’t the cars you see on the street familiar? If somebody else looks like you, does that person violate the law?”

The Autobots
Cars (right) vs The Autobots (left). Photo: World Journal.
The Autobots
“Fake version” (left) vs “Pixar version.” Photo: Emao.

The animation company responsible, Xiamen Blue Flame Television Animation, has also defended the film, saying it had produced what amounts to an “original creation.”

Whereas the Cars world is populated entirely by anthropomorphic cars, they point out, The Autobots featured both humans and automobiles.

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Online, however, few Chinese netizens are buying into the defence.

“Even a blind person could see this is plagiarism,” one net user wrote, while another added that “even real estate office illustrations are better than [The Autobots].”

“I thought it was Cars when I bought a ticket,” another commenter admitted. “I didn’t check the name carefully.”

The Chinese name for The Autobots differs from Cars‘ Chinese name by just two characters – one of which is obscured by a tyre on the film’s theatrical poster.

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is an award-winning journalist and scholar from Hong Kong who has reported on the city’s politics, protests, and policing for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, TIME, The Guardian, The Independent, and others