What is Big Fish & Begonia?
An epic fantasy based on various national legends, this is China’s most celebrated feature animation in a generation. In a world unseen but linked to our own, magical beings control time and tide. To fulfill her rite of passage, 16-year-old Chun visits the human world in dolphin form, where her life is saved by a young man who drowns in the process. Wracked with guilt, Chun accepts a deal to resurrect him as a fish, whose life and death is now entwined with her own. They attempt to navigate dangerous disruptions to Chun’s world while growing ever closer, though she knows that ultimately they must separate when he returns to his own realm.
What’s Mandarin for ‘Miyazaki’?
It isn’t just Western bias or general ignorance of Asian anime that will lead Big Fish & Begonia to inevitable comparisons with Japan’s iconic Studio Ghibli, and, in particular, the celebrated work of their most famous artist Hayao Miyazaki. Nor, presumably, is such resemblance entirely coincidental. Lush, hand-drawn (though, here, supplemented with CG) animation, a spunky young heroine, no conventional villain, all manner of fantastical creatures and a predilection for environmental themes don’t belong exclusively to Ghibli’s reigning Emperor of Anime, but no one else has mined them so effectively for so long. And if you’re going to pay homage, you might as well worship the best.
The biggest compliment to give Chinese animators Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, who toiled for years to realize their dream project, is that, at its best, their film hits similar highs to Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, perhaps mixed with a dash of his own maritime adventure Ponyo, which also concerned two sea-crossed youngsters.
The Big Blues
Big Fish & Begonia’s most original conceit is the way the worlds here conjoin sea and sky. This is where the stunning animation really takes flight. Magical maelstroms that bring the two worlds together, effectively turning the sea upside down, are rendered with an elemental force. Dolphins leap through clouds as if they are waves, while thousands of twinkling stars are reflected in the ocean waters. Yet the colour palette never just blurs into one big blue, instead finding subtle hue variations on its theme. Add in swirling typhoon columns and roiling shoals of fish and you’ve got aquatic animation to match Pixar’s Finding Nemo and Dory.
There’s another flicker of Pixar inspiration in the Chamber of Heaven, in which human souls (in baby fish form) are stored and stacked in endless rows of shelves, reminiscent of Inside Out’s Long Term Memory depot. Elsewhere, as mentioned, Ghibli inspiration dominates, and it’s a pleasant surprise to see equally quirky and eccentric touches to environment and, especially, supporting characters. Our heroine Chun’s grandfather is a Rapunzel-haired wise man who turns into a towering begonia tree, while her grandmother is already a graceful phoenix, because, well, why not? Another particular highlight is the Soul Keeper, basically resembling a one-eyed fish bishop who smokes. It’s the sort of touch you know would be vetoed at the storyboards stage in the PC, kiddie-centric world of Western animation.
Bizarre Love Triangle
The film bucks traditional romance with its three-way relationship between Chun, human-turned-fish Kun, and Chun’s fellow mystical youth, the roguish Qiu. This sets the scene nicely for some climactic heartbreak – there’s a lot of death, loss and self-sacrifice – but unfortunately the trio are all a little too bland, their generic, wide manga eyes diluting the story’s emotional impact. You get the feeling that the filmmakers sense this too, and so overcompensate with a swelling, sentimental soundtrack that threatens to drown out even Celine Dion’s bombastic Titanic theme. Big Fish doesn’t so much pluck at the heartstrings as seemingly try to sever them one by one with a sharp-edged Chinese dao.
As the story unfolds, the plot thickens to the point where viewers unfamiliar with the Chinese legends at play might simply get stuck. While Big Fish’s spectacle never flags, too often its comprehensibility does. The spectacular climactic flood is neither clearly delineated nor effectively cross-cut among the various protagonists. It’s especially confusing in a fantasy where almost anything can happen and leads to a lack of tension and emotion at the very worst moments.
Is Big Fish & Begonia Good?
Visually spectacular and enjoyably offbeat for an art form (animation) and genre (fantasy) that often feel plugged into predetermined spreadsheets, Big Fish & Begonia has much to recommend it. If Studio Ghibli fans might feel like it’s a Chinese cover version of Japanese classics, its own national identity comes through in design and legend.
As with many new ventures, some faltering steps, particularly in crucial character development and storytelling clarity, mar its way. But if this is the first venture in China’s new animation drive, then it’s a positive one, particularly at a time when a film’s global appeal has never been more important. Besides, even Miyazaki improved with age.
Big Fish & Begonia is in UK cinemas now.