Big Fish and Begonia
I’ll be the first to admit, I know very little about anime. I’ve seen most of the Studio Ghibli movies and a few other assorted picks and to me, that was enough. However, when I saw that this movie which had been called “the dawn of Chinese anime” at the time of it’s 2016 Chinese exclusive release was being given a western release, my interest was piqued.
Big Fish and Begonia follows the story of a young girl named Chun who lives in a mystical realm beneath the human world. She participates in a coming of age ritual that involves turning into a red dolphin and exploring the human world. During a storm, a young boy saves her, drowning in the process. The movie follows her on her quest to bring him back to life. It’s an unusual premise, but the movie has enough creativity and imagination to make it work. The visuals are fantastic, offering colorful and varied landscapes that bring the world to life. Some of the landscapes and more interesting characters, such as the rat matron (similar to a furrier version of Oogie boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas) make it as appealing as an art exhibition as it is a movie.
The plot is mostly interesting but struggles to be consistently entertaining due to some spotty writing. Sometimes exchanges feel heartfelt and genuine, and sometimes they feel contrived, especially during the rushed last third. Despite this, the overall impact of the plot is strong and has an emotional impact. It doesn’t tell the most incredible, in-depth story but it doesn’t need to, and instead lets the visuals do the work. The soundtrack again isn’t anything special, but is least pleasant and adds to the atmosphere.
My main disappointment with the movie is how much it feels like a mediocre Hayao Miyazaki (director for the majority of the Studio Ghibli films) movie. His lush and mythological style is painted into every frame of the movie, but never quite replicated. It fails both to reach the emotional peaks of Ponyo or My Neighbor Totoro or get even close to the creativity of Spirited Away. It’s true that for it to accomplish any of those feats it would have to be a masterpiece and that the comparison between Hayao and the relatively inexperienced directors of Big Fish and Begonia (Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun) is unfair, but the striking similarities between the two films make that connection inevitable.
The movie is a great example of why at least visually, Eastern animation is far ahead of Western anime. It looks fantastic and has a strong sense of style. However, the lack of a consistent plot and its own identity make it fall short of what it could have been. I would definitely recommend this as one of the better movies I’ve seen so far this year.