Other than vague knowledge of the famous story of Journey To the West novel I know absolutely nothing about Chinese mythology, yet I don’t need to in order to be completely absorbed in Big Fish & Begonia. Embodying one of my favorite aspect of animation is it unique ability for visual storytelling. Some nuances might be lost in translation unless you’re well verse into that country’s culture, but what is never lost are the limitless possibilities of what you can experience through animation.
Big Fish & Begonia is set in in the realm of The Others, a sort of parallel dimension that controls the seasons and tides on Earth and is where the souls of humans go after they past. Our leading lady Chun, a 16-year-old girl, travels to the human world in the form of a dolphin and forms a connection with a human boy. The first thing this movie gets out of it way is it world building. Setting up the important pieces of how souls are handle in this world, and later on expanding on them to fuel it main conflict. All the important details involving the world function is fleshed out while leaving enough unanswered to give it world a mysterious allure.
One of my ongoing issues about fantasies is the quick fix magic becomes in their stories. You’ll get that quick magic fix here, but there’s an effort to express consequences for one’s action I feel don’t come across as strongly in other fantasy stories. There’s a comment made by a character how the newer generation doesn’t value life when he frequently sees them throwing it away so easily. The whole film is dedicated to characters making sacrifices for another love one in multiple situations. Doing so in a way that paints the subject with some manner of complexity. Detailing it in a way where the reasoning behind it makes sense, but the action taken is unreasonable with drastic results.
No other character embodies this better than Qiu. He has the most tragic arch out of any character in the film. Through Qiu, the film tackles the theme of unrequited love while adding to the already well explored theme of sacrifices, and consequences. Everything revolving around Qiu is fully realize becoming the heavier emotional core of the film. It’s nearly impossible not to sympathize with Qiu wanting to protect his childhood best friend Chun as the world crumbles around him. While the film still get its happy ending, there’s a mid-credit scene that ensures you don’t forget about the significance of these characters sacrifices.
The story is structured nearly flawlessly. Allowing plenty of room be taken under it spell through a sense of wonder when Chun briefly explores the human world, and realm of The Others. Through Chun the viewer will be able to see a harsher side of The Others realm like Chun never witness before. Doing a magnificent job getting across how hard hitting it is for Chun to see everything around her crumble for the value of another life.
Preventing itself from becoming heavy handed the film also has some nice subtlety to its storytelling. None of the characters action are over explained. Instead the film drops some subtle visual reminders in certain scenes to help viewers make the connection easier. One area I’m most happy with is handling the discussion on the worth of human life. From Chun perspective her experience make her value human life a lot more than the adults of The Other realm that simply sees the existence of Kun (a human reincarnated into a Dolphin) as anything more a harm to the balance of the worlds. This plot point nicely sits in the shades of grey having it a strength.
There’s a rat woman character in the movie who goes into the human world who gets forgotten about. Providing a false villain for no reason considering she didn’t add much to the overarching story besides adding a plot hole. Another issue is how Chun affection for Kun is handle. It feels like Chun falls in love with Kun over the fact that he just saved her life, and is willing to sacrifice everything for him. This is salvaged by the fact that through montages it gets across the bond they build over time. There’s also the absent of dialogue shared between Chun, and Kun unable to build the bond to a point where it easy to accept Chun goes as far she does to rescue Kun’s life.
When looking at the sums of it parts there’s some oversights on the storytelling front. On the whole, in its effort to create vast sweeping emotion it makes it possible to be lost in the moment. By pacing itself just right it narrative shortcomings aren’t lingered on for long. Going head first with beautiful visuals, and big emotions expressed by it characters. I’m not excusing the story’s shortcomings, but when I got swept up in the moment those shortcomings were the furthest thing from my mind. Well, except maybe the 3, or 4 times it had the someone got pooped on jokes. Those jokes took me out of its majesty temporarily.
Animated by B&T studio the animation is richly detailed with a mixture of digital animation, and some light usage of 3D. My biggest surprise is the 3D in Big Fish & Begonia blends nicely with the 2D art. It is very noticeable, but good enough that it doesn’t take you out of the moment. There’s plenty of times where the animation shine creating dreamy like imagery like a scene involving Chun getting a ferry ride through the clouds, and giving off a oceanic like effect when riding roaring through the clouds. All the while maintaining high detail with so much moving on screen. Like a scene involving a giant stuffed rat that houses a vast array of real rats that leave it to forage before sewing themselves back up inside has much details to marvel at.
In particular the finale has plenty of chaos incurring in the background of the world brought to life by stunning details, and smooth movement sparring no details on its particle effects. At night the ocean reflects the sky, it’s stars and the sublime hues present; while during the day it is almost invisible and many objects look like they are floating through air to create a dreamy mood. It’s beautiful movie to look at with its lush color palette creating one very colorful movie. Sometimes giving off the visual finesse comparable to a Miyazaki movie.
The English dub is great, especially with Stephanie Sheh, and Johnny Yong Bosch in the leading roles. Johnny Yong Bosch in particular as Qiu is gut wrenching, and a emotional powerhouse. It’s easily one of his best performances as a voice actor. He steals the show with ease. Then Stephanie Sheh who is also good manages to pull a convincing performance. She’s able make you believe what her character believes in a short amount of time. One downside to the English dub are the mouth movement are mistimed with the English dialogue. So you’ll characters speak while their mouths don’t move for a bit early on. It doesn’t happen constantly, but is noticeable.
The music is composed by Kiyoshi Yoshida. It’s sweeping, and epic doing justice every scene it’s used. Offering a peaceful quality during calmer moments, and a feeling of other worldly dread when things escalate. Finally, the ending theme “Jiao Xi Ru Feng” by Xu Jiaying appropriately ends the movie with a epic ballad that’s somber, and warm.
In a 24 minute documentary about the making of this movie it started life as a short film through a group of very passionate individuals in 2004. Through the course of 12 years B&T Studio would hone their skills doing various commercials, and short films, but would lack funding to complete the feature film. The studio goes into a failed endeavor making a game which dug them into a bigger financial hole than before. People leave the project, and it seems hopeless. Much like the movie itself, the trails to finished the movie required plenty of sacrifices. Every product has their share of setbacks, but few of those works have their passion seep through every frame on screen. One thing that is vividly expressed in everything about the movie, even without knowing it’s production history is the passion is strongly felt from watching it.
Big Fish & Begonia is an monumental achievement for Chinese animation. It’s visually absorbing from beginning to end, with a highly imaginative world it takes advantage off, and a story that’s easy to get become lost in makes one wonderful experience. The sums of it parts are muddle, but the whole thing is nothing short of amazing. I highly recommended Big Fish & Begonia for any fans of animation, and movie fans in general.