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In the span of a few years, China has started to throw its hat into the ring of animation. They have now made it a goal to not just be the country other countries use for their animation, or the creator of a flood of mediocre features. While The Monkey King: Hero is Back was a good first step, I would hardly call it a good movie. The true first step for the country would come in the form of an animated feature that came out back in 2016, but finally got a release here in the states, Big Fish & Begonia. This unique and important title was the passion project behind the directors, Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. It was based on a Chinese Taoist story called Zhuangzi, but apparently drew from other Chinese classic tales as well. After going through up to over a decade of financial troubles of getting funding, spending it, and lack of animation talent, the film was finally finished. It was picked up by Shout! Factory last year, and was a feature that people payed major attention to during film festivals, including being one of the big features of the Animation is Film Festival. So, was a decade of development worth the hype and final product? Well, let’s check it out.
The story follows Chu, dubbed by Stephanie Sheh. She is a 16 year-old girl who lives in a world that lies on the other side of the human world’s ocean. It’s full of powerful individuals and spirits. Chun has to go through a rite of passage, and venture into the human world as a red dolphin. While in the human world, Chun is smitten by a human male named Kun, dubbed by Todd Haberkorn. After a few days swimming around, Chun gets caught inside a fishing net, and Kun tries to save her. Luckily, he gets her out, but ends up drowning in the process. Feeling guilty as all get-out about Kun dying, Chun ends up going to a place called the Island of Souls to try and bring Kun back. She offers the caretaker, Ling Po, dubbed by JB Blanc, half of her life to bring Kun back. After that, she spends the next chunk of her life taking care of Kun as he grows bigger, and makes sure he can go back to the human world. The bad news is that while Kun is there, the world that she lives in is in major peril. Can she make sure Kun gets back alive? What is she willing to sacrifice to make sure that happens?
A problem I see with many passion projects that take a good decade or so to fully complete is that the creators try to shove in too much into the film, and never think about cutting certain story elements, or redoing some of the script. Of course, animation can be a huge endeavor, and making changes on the fly can be costly, but you can run the risk of making the film feel too busy, bloated, and or unfocused. Unfortunately, a lot of the problems with Big Fish & Begonia is that there is too much going on. Much of the film is Chun’s relationship with Kun, and her learning about life, death, sacrifice, and the consequences to certain actions, but they shove in a lot of characters, and a lot of time spent with Chun over vast landscapes. I’ll admit, many of the logical issues I keep questioning throughout my time watching the film are probably more of a cultural thing, and how the film wants to be more of a fairy tale. However, how far can you go with those kinds of defenses until they become too distracting? How much homework does one need to do on Chinese culture to fully understand the magical logic used in the film? It shouldn’t turn into a homework project to fully get what’s going on, and who everyone is. I don’t mind learning about the culture, but the film should be explaining to me visually what’s going on. For example, there is this rat woman who is an obvious threat, but you don’t get why she wants to go to the human world, and you don’t see her again after a certain period of time. I mean, yes, you can tell by her design and the way she interacts with everyone, that she is a threat, but why? I also get that having Kun stay in their world brings upon a lot of damage and danger, but why? Why does having a human spirit cause such chaos? The story also goes at a rather fast pace. It’s not a truly horrible thing, but I think the film’s atmosphere and emotional investment would have been stronger if they let some time pass between certain moments. While Studio MiR, the same studio behind Avatar: The Last Airbender and Netflix’s Voltron series, has some breathtaking animation done for Big Fish & Begonia, its use of CGI is definitely distracting. It’s not as bad as, say, Blue Submarine No. 6, but you can always tell when it’s CGI. It becomes more distracting when you see the giant flying whales that look like something out of that Fantasia 2000 short.
With all that said, Big Fish & Begonia has great elements in its overall package. Like I said above, the animation is gorgeous. The backgrounds are awe inspiring, the designs are whimsical, the movements are fluid, and it’s an incredible visual feast for the eyes. You can tell there was a heavy dose of passion throughout this entire film’s visual presentation. It’s an incredible treat for the eyes that you need to see on the biggest screen you can. I even regret not seeing this one when it came out in my neck of the woods! As for the dub, I have seen both the original with subtitles, and the dub that Funimation helped out with. I think the cast is pretty stellar that includes actors such as Stephanie Sheh, Johnny Yong Bosch, Todd Haberkorn, JB Blanc, Cindy Robinson, Yuri Lowenthal, Greg Chun, Kate Higgins, Kyle Hebert, Erika Ishii, and Cam Clarke. The music by Kiyoshi Yoshida is full of that Chinese flair. It’s fantastical, mystical, and epic when needed. You might have heard of his name and his music if you have seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, where he did the soundtrack for that film. Another strong element is the relationship between Chun, Kun, and Chun’s friend Qui, dubbed by Johnny Yong Bosch. Most of the time you see Chun and Kun together is done with very little dialogue. The visuals tell the story, which, you know, is sort of important in a visual medium like animation.
Big Fish & Begonia might be a bit of a mess, but it’s an important film for China and the Chinese animation scene. If you watch the trailers or clips, and you think you would like this film, I definitely recommend checking it out. It’s an impressive start, and I hope that means that other 2D animated projects that are going on over in China, can start raising the bar as time goes on. Well, after this, I definitely need something a bit zanier, a bit more focused, and maybe something that can make the night go on forever. Next time, we are going to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s other hit film, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!
Rating: Go See It!