I’m not even going to bother with the pretense of comparing Big Fish & Begonia – a Chinese animated film from 2016 finally being released in America thanks to Funimation – to the works of Studio Ghibli. It’s not exactly a fair thing to do, as China is still relatively new to the animation game, and as such there’s no way this film could truly stack up. But it is worth noting the trails that Asian giants like Ghibli have blazed over the last 30 years, and with that in mind, there’s a lot of potential on display here. If nothing else, given the fact that last year had such a dearth of good animated films, to the point that The Boss Baby got nominated for the Animated Feature Oscar, it’s very refreshing to have the third truly solid animated film out this year by April, and there are still highly-anticipated major studio fare like Incredibles 2 and Ralph Breaks the Internet yet to come. This is certainly encouraging.
Based on several Chinese legends, the film centers on a young girl named Chun, who lives in a spirit world beneath the oceans, and who has earth/wood-based magic powers. Her family also has a history with begonias, so in essence, she’s the second title character. Every year, when children of this world turn 16, they transport to the human world in the form of red dolphins to explore and learn what they can about the laws of nature, with strict orders to return in seven days and to not make contact with humans. This is their rite of passage into adulthood.
During her week as a dolphin, Chun encounters a teenage boy and his little sister. All parties involved are fascinated with one another, but Chun keeps her distance. During a storm on the day of her return, Chun gets stuck in a fishing net near the boy’s house. He swims out to save her by cutting the ropes, but is accidentally hit by her tail, and he drowns. Consumed with grief, Chun returns to her world, taking with her a dolphin-shaped ocarina the boy played, and resolves to find some way to revive him. After trading half her life to a one-eyed curator of the dead called the “Soul Keeper,” the boy is restored in the form of a baby dolphin, which Chun must raise to maturity so he can return to life in the human world. With the help of her friend, Qiu, who is in love with her, they name the boy Kun, after a legendary fish who grew to enormous size. So, in essence, Big Fish & Begonia could have been easily named “Kun and Chun” for a fun rhyme. Don’t know why it wasn’t.
The rest of the film is the concerted effort to keep Kun safe while he grows, as well as keep him secret from the rest of their village, as humans are forbidden from their world. Kun’s mere presence triggers natural disasters and harsh seasonal changes as the barrier between the human world and theirs begins to break down. Chun’s earth magic and Qiu’s water magic can only go so far, so they seek the help of Chun’s grandfather, an ancient woodland spirit, as well as the “Rat Matron,” an elderly witch surrounded by rodents. She and the Soul Keeper are the guardians of the dead. Virtuous souls become fish for the Soul Keeper, while sinners become rats for the Matron. She helps them to a point, but harbors an ulterior motive to restore her youthful beauty and escape to the human world herself.
Because the story draws from multiple mythical sources, some of the finer details get a bit jumbled. For example, we have no idea why these people have powers, or why some represent one classical element and not another. One can theorize (perhaps it’s tied to the seasons, as “Chun” is a Chinese word for “Spring”), but there’s no definitive answer. Maybe this is all intuitive to the native audience, and we Americans are just too ignorant to get the references, it’s highly possible. Still, a little background exposition would have been appreciated. There’s an older version of Chun at age 117 narrating the story at points, so presumably it takes a year for Kun to grow, and Chun lives at least 100 more years beyond that, which eliminates some of the suspense of her life being in danger, but beyond that, we get no real contextual clues into how this universe works.
Chun’s own family dynamic has some issues. She’s not quite a tsundere character, as she’s never outwardly hostile to anyone, but she is unemotional throughout the majority of the film. Her mother is overprotective and judgmental, though we have no idea why. Conversely, her father is permissive and sophist, again for no stated reason. The only real familial relationship she has is with her grandfather, who is mostly there to provide perspective on death, though she considers Qiu to be like an older brother to her.
There are also some pacing problems. A lot of the main action happens in the first hour of the film, to the point that I was looking at the clock on my phone and wondering if this would be a short feature, like My Life as a Zucchini, which was just over an hour long. Instead, at about the midway point the other plot shoe drops, and the film becomes a slow crawl to the end almost another hour later.
But all these story faults can be forgiven if the animation is compelling, and for the most part, it is. In fact at times it’s downright glorious. The film was originally made in 2D and 3D, and as such it includes some CGI sequences used for 3D justification. The film perhaps loses a little quality when viewed normally – with that depth of field eliminated the blend of CGI with traditional cell-shaded elements doesn’t always mix well – but that doesn’t stop the visuals from being absolutely gorgeous. Whales flying through the sky, realistic water effects, a rainbow-colored cloth being laid down onto a river and turning the water multiple colors, it all looks amazing. The backgrounds are some of the most astonishing in recent memory, and the magical characters that don’t fully resemble humans look like an homage to Spirited Away, arguably the greatest animated film ever made (that’s the farthest I’ll go in terms of Ghibli comparisons). And of course, you have the lovely spectacle of the red dolphins/narwhals themselves.
The only real flaw in character design falls to the human-like protagonists. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with them, but given that this is an Asian animated film, I was struck by how much Chun, Qiu, and Kun (in human form) looked more like Asian-inspired Western cartoons, like Avatar: The Last Airbender or The Legend of Korra. It’s not exactly bad, just somewhat out of place. It also doesn’t help that Chun spends much of her time with a very stoic expression on her face, highlighting the somewhat drab presentation. The filmmakers did make an interesting choice towards the end, though, with a few brief moments of doll-like nudity, in that the women have no nipples and the men are completely smooth downstairs. It’s an odd choice, especially given that Chun’s rite of passage is repeatedly stated as making her an adult, though not necessarily the wrong choice, given that this is still a children’s movie.
Overall, the film shows a lot of potential. There’s work to be done with story and pacing, as well as some lessons to be learned on character design. But in the end, the spectacular visuals (including some nitpicky holes) more than make up for it. Also, while I didn’t mention it earlier, the score is really good as well. The film is in “wide” release, in that it’s playing in indie theatres and arthouses outside New York and Los Angeles, but it likely won’t ever hit a major multiplex. That said, with Funimation licensing the film and creating an English dub (featuring anime VO mainstays like Stephanie Sheh, Todd Haberkorn, and Yuri Lowenthal), expect a DVD/Blu-Ray release in the not-too-distant future. See it if you get a chance. It’s far from perfect, but there’s a lot to like.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What animated films are you super stoked to see? Would you trade your life for a fish? Let me know!