Starring: Ji Guanlin, Su Shangqing, Pan Shulan
Director: Liang Xuan, Zhang Chun
Running Time: 100 mins
Big Fish & Begonia is a Chinese film about a girl who, by travelling from her home under the sea to the surface world in the form of a dolphin, develops a connection with a human boy.
Partly the big-screen arrival of Chinese folklore in animated fashion, partly an answer to Japan’s dominance of the genre in recent years, Big Fish & Begonia is set up to be quite a game-changing film, and while it impresses with gorgeous visuals throughout, it does little to really hit home on a deeper level. With a fantasy story that fails to connect deep with real mythology and consequently feels more non-sensical, the film just isn’t the world’s most engrossing watch at any point.
But before I get into that, let’s first mention the animation, which is right up there with the best of the best from the genre in recent years. While it can’t quite match the deeply beautiful and tactile hand-drawn/painted visuals of early Studio Ghibli, its visual style is highly comparable to anime films of the modern day, and Big Fish & Begonia goes all out to use that style to full effect throughout.
As a result, the adventure back and forth between the bottom of the sea and the surface world looks absolutely gorgeous at every moment, and with a number of big centrepiece shots throughout that feature animals jumping out of the water in spectacular fashion, as well as a Ghibli-esque attention to detail with the presentation of mythological concepts and characters, there’s no denying just how striking and genuinely impressive this movie is.
Great visuals – as wonderful as they are – can’t hold an entire film, though. And that’s where Big Fish & Begonia really falls down. While it attempts to bring classic Chinese folklore onto the big screen in a cinematic fashion, the film really gets bogged down in an overly complex and often seemingly non-sensical fantasy story that really lacks the clear emotion and vision of better films with similar premises.
In that, Big Fish & Begonia comes off as a little bit of a weaker adaptation of a number of other films, with a very similar premise to Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo, a similar fantasy atmosphere to the legendary Spirited Away, and a combination of traditional mythology and animation that’s reminiscent of the gorgeous Irish film, Song Of The Sea.
Of course, with strong films like those in the back of your mind as you watch, it’s difficult for Big Fish & Begonia to really stun, but it lacks a simple elegance that at least two of those films carry off really well.
At its core, the film’s story is the relationship between a young girl from under the sea, and a boy from the human world. That story is simple enough, and with good emotional depth, can prove properly moving, however the film gets too bogged down in wider mythological and thematic ideas that take away from the potential of that core idea, similar to how the Japanese anime Patema Inverted finds itself distracted by other ideas away from the central relationship.
As a result, I never found myself able to really connect with Big Fish & Begonia on the emotional level that I felt it really deserved. With such spectacular visuals, I really wanted to be swept away by the entire film, but there’s just not enough consistency or genuine depth beneath that exceptional animation to genuinely captivate you at any point, which makes for a frustratingly underwhelming and often difficult-to-follow watch, and that’s why I’m giving this a 6.6 overall.