Chinese animation. I mean, I guess I shouldn’t be this surprised, but it’s usually Japanese animation that takes the world by storm, thanks in large part to Studio Ghibli, which created the most celebrated animated films of all time that legit went on win to become Oscar contenders and SPIRITED AWAY (2001) won Best Animated Picture of that year. With all that in mind, what was the last Chinese animated movie that became a household name? I couldn’t name one if you held a gun to my face.
So there’s a slight bit of history to this movie. It was technically made in 2016. I won’t pretend to know why it took Funimation two years to acquire the North American distribution rights, but I guess better late than never. Also, if I’m not mistaken, this has actually been in theaters for some time now, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make the time for it. But after seeing the trailer, I think I was about to make a huge mistake.
The story looks like it’s about… actually, I’m not sure if I know what it’s about. I think it’s about a Chinese-equivalent to Atlantis and how the teenage princess gets turned into a dolphin to experience the human world. But then she gets caught in a fishing net. She gets saved by a local boy, but then he gets whisked away… who knows where. Then the seasons get shifted somehow, and something about a giant horned whale, I’m not sure when I got lost.
The only name I recognize from the American cast is Johnny Yong Bosch of MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS fame. No, I don’t watch a lot of anime, from Japan, China, or anywhere for that matter.
I won’t be familiar with the Chinese crew, but here’s the credits anyway. Co-writing and co-directing are Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. Composing the score is Kiyoshi Yoshida. Finally, the editor is Yiran Tu.
Overall, this looks gorgeous as far as the animation is concerned. The story on the other hand looks like it’s a little unfocused, likely a result of a bad trailer. The story looks like it’s about one thing, but then becomes something else, so I have no idea what to make of it. But, it looks like it’s gone on to become the third highest grossing Chinese animated film of all time. Number one is somehow KUNG FU PANDA 3, which is an American animated film that takes place in China. My guess, the Wikipedia page that I’m getting this from is likely a generalized “highest grossing animated films that were ever released in China.” But hey, this is going to be an experience, I know that much.
This is my honest opinion of: BIG FISH & BEGONIA / 大鱼海棠
Set in world that humans can’t see. On their sixteenth birthdays, the children of a small, otherworldly city turn into red fish and visit the human world for seven days to experience their wonders without interacting with them directly. Chun (voiced by Stephanie Sheh) takes in everything, but on the seventh day, she loses track of time as she spends time a human boy (voiced by Todd Haberkorn) and his little sister, she also gets caught in a fishing net. Though the boy saves her, he is knocked into a whirlpool and dies. Distraught by his sacrifice, she Chun journeys to the Island of Souls where she deals with the soul keeper: trade half her life for the boy’s, even if it means the utter destruction of her world.
Well, I won’t call it the best animated movie I’ve ever seen, I will say that it was an experience. Oh, and I was totally wrong about the unfocused story.
Okay, first issue that I’m going to take with this movie, they’re dolphins. Not… fish. The creatures that these teens turn into are… dolphins. Red dolphins, yes, but not fish. Dolphins are mammals. Not fish. Stop calling them “fish,” movie. I think even the human characters call them dolphins, but in the mythical world, they call them fish and it bugs the crap out of me.
On a technical level, I’ve learned to really hate pointless narrations. Okay, some are fine, like the opening and a small introduction to the world that we’re going to explore. But after awhile, Chun’s narrations wouldn’t shut up. We know the teens are in the human world to explore it and take in their wonders. Why do we need Chun to narrate what we are seeing clearly in front of us?
I’m not entirely sure how much of this mythical world I understand. So I know that these “Others” aren’t gods, but they created the human world. They age and die, a-la the Asgardians from the MCU Thor movies. But… why do they send their teenagers out into the world to see their work? Is it narcissism? They just want their children to know how awesome they are? What’s the point? And why specifically a week in the human world? Why no interaction with humans? It doesn’t look like they can talk in their dolphin forms, so what’s the fear? Of getting caught and killed? Humans aren’t the only threats that dolphins face. How about a, “Hey, watch out for Great White Sharks while you’re at it.” Why specifically are humans a danger? Hell, is that even the case? Are humans perceived as dangerous to the Others? None of this is explained. There are even cases of their magic use that seem random. In one scene, Chun’s grandmother appears human. But then after not seeing her for some time, she makes a reappearance as… a phoenix. Um… okay. Some questions here. One, can everyone in this world turn into mythical creatures at will? Can they turn back to human if they do? I bring up that question because the grandmother is never seen in her human form again and supposedly even dies in her phoenix form. If these people can turn into other creatures, why don’t we see more of it?
Smaller issues include character motivations not always making sense. Like, the soul keeper. He is perfectly aware that if he gives Chun the soul of the boy who died to her, trading half her life for it, that it would result in catastrophe. So… why does he help her? What does having a half-life mean for him? Why is it worth the destruction of their world? Isn’t his Island of Souls part of their world? There’s also that “it’s impossible, but here’s how to make it possible” moment. Like, there’s a random and pointless scene where Qiu (voiced by Johnny Yong Bosch) fights off a two-headed poisonous snake and gets bitten. It’s mentioned that there’s no cure for the poison. Oh, except for the cure that Chun’s grandfather whips up and saves him one scene later. Granted, it’s not a real cure, but it’s still dumb to shoe-horn this in to the story. And the comedy sucks. A horse poops on Qiu’s head. Why? Was this the comedic highlight of the flick? Would the very fabric of the story fallen to pieces if this wasn’t in the movie? Give me a break…
And what’s up with the rat lady? I totally missed what the hell her part in the story was. First of all, I just read on Wikipedia that her rats are the sinners of the human world? I don’t recall that being made clear either, but fine, we’ll chock that up to me not paying attention to the dialog. But… why does she want to go to human world so badly? She sabotages Chun’s efforts of sending Kun back to the human world via the portal that she used when she went, but… one would think that this supposed gatherer of sinful humans would play a bigger part in the movie. But… nope, she goes to the human world and is never seen again. What was the point in that?
But before anyone starts thinking that I hate this movie, I don’t. There’s quite a bit to like and even love in this movie.
For one thing, the animation is gorgeous, especially the underwater stuff. It’s truly a sight to behold. There is also a great deal of imagination. Everything is so visually weird, but I kind of loved it. The design of the ferryman creature that takes Chun to the Island of Souls, the flowers that act like a source of light, the very design of the mystical world is so grand and wondrous as whole. And it’s not devoid of creativity, as to be expected from Asian art in general. The design of the ferryman that takes Chun to the Island of Souls. That was odd, but interesting. And the idea that the rat lady can use rats almost like walkie talkies, that was pretty amusiing.
There’s also some pretty powerful emotional moments too. It’s clearly established that Qiu has had a romantic interest in Chun, but she doesn’t share his feelings. In fact, in one particular scene, she tells him this right to his face when they’re sleeping together. She rolls over, facing away from him, and he rolls over to face her. He reaches out to touch her, but never does. Despite everything that he’s done and even sacrificed on a personal level, all the danger he’s put himself in, all the destruction he’s aided in, he still doesn’t keep trying to show her how he feels, but it’s never enough because he knows that her heart is to the boy that she accidentally killed. In retrospect, this is a pretty well-done love-triangle.
Overall, it’s hard to say how I feel about this. On a purely visual standpoint, it’s breath-taking and awe-inspiring. But on a story-telling standpoint, it’s not great. Character motivations don’t always add up, pointless scenes and subplots that go nowhere, it’s a pretty messy film in that regard and that’s what ultimately hurts it. As far as a recommendation is concerned… yeah, I still recommend checking it out. Like I said, it’s an experience and one that I am glad that I got to see. Maybe not more than once, but the once was worth it. I’m sure this has an audience out there and they’ll likely appreciate this more than I can.
My honest rating for BIG FISH & BEGONIA / 大鱼海棠: 3/5
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