Big Fish & Begonia – Movie Review
So apparently China is making big animated movies now? Good on them.
No seriously, that wasn’t sarcasm. Good on them. The more different animations out there the better. Especially if they’re as gorgeous and engaging as this movie.
Seriously though, as anyone who knows me might be aware, I’m a fairly big fan of animated movies. Especially ones with traditional hand-drawn animation. So when I got the chance a couple of weeks ago to check this movie out, at the London Film Festival, I was practically chomping at the bit. Not only did the trailer look gorgeous, but it was also animated by Studio Mir, the same studio who did such shows as Legend of Korra and the recent Voltron show. So did it live up to my expectations? Pretty much yeah.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a fantastic movie and it’s certainly no Ghibli, but as far as a first effort goes, it was really damn good. Not only did it look absolutely amazing, but it was able to pull some really damn strong emotional chops. I’m not a guy who really cries at a movies, but this came closer than any other film this year.
The movie takes place in a mystical realm beneath the human world, where mythical beings with magical abilities watch over the world and help keep the laws of nature balanced. I suspect it’s highly based on Chinese mythology, the likes of which are very underrepresented here in the West, so it was certainly fascinating to see these strange and interesting designs and ideas translated into animated form.
Anyway, to get back on track, Big Fish & Begonia is about one such inhabitant of this realm, a young girl named Chun, who take a coming-of-age visit and exploration of the human world in the form of a dolphin. However, on her way back home, she is caught in a fisherman’s net and is only saved by the intervention of a young boy. Unfortunately, said boy is drowned in the process of saving her, naturally leaving Chun with a fair amount of guilt.
As recompense, she travels to the underworld and bargains with the grumpy and morally ambiguous Soul Keeper, who makes a deal with her to restore the boy’s life. In exchange for half of her lifespan, the boy’s soul is resurrected in the form of a baby dolphin. Chun must successfully raise the dolphin, nicknamed Kun, to adulthood to fully restore the boy back to life. Which easier said than done when most of the other inhabitants of the realm believe Kun will bring disaster to them all (which, unfortunately, isn’t exactly inaccurate). So Chun, with the help of her best friend Qui (who is also one of the best characters in the movie) must keep Kun’s existence hidden until he can be restored to life.
Now, as much as I do like this movie, there is one major issue I think really holds it back from being a real masterpiece of the genre. And it’s quite simple. Kun is a tremendously boring character. Seriously, when I think of animal companions in animated movies, I think of characters like Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon or Gromit in Wallace and Gromit. Both are almost utterly silent, yet they convey so much character and emotion through their expressions and movements and actions.
In comparison, Kun mostly just swims around looking sad. And, let’s not forget, he’s a large focus of much of the movie. Making a human-animal bond the focal point of your movie doesn’t really work when one half of said relationship is just dull as sin. He’s got a nice design and all, but as far as actual characterisation goes, he has the personality of a goldfish. He even drags down Chun somewhat. Before the climax, I was perfectly willing to put her in the same boat of being a bland main character solely based on her interactions with Kun. She’s fortunately redeemed by the third act, where she has some genuinely heart-breaking emotional turmoil to go through as the results of her actions start to take their toll on her home.
Now, I’m not saying this movie is just a pretty face with a lacklustre story under the surface, because it’s really not. (Aside from the pretty face thing, obviously. Seriously, this movie looks gorgeous.) In particular, I have nothing but praise for Qui’s complex and utterly heart-breaking character arc. Seriously, I was not exaggerating when I called him the best character in the movie by far. He’s got a great design mixed with a full realized, three-dimensional characterisation that leads to a genuinely emotional conclusion. As much as the movie proclaims to be about Chun and Kun, Qui is really the emotional centre of the film and is damn compelling at that.
Indeed, while the first two thirds of this movie were a touch sluggish and uncertain, not helped by Kun’s dullness, the final third of this movie more than propels this movie into something special. It’s dramatic and epic and heart-breaking for Chun and Qui. I’m not exaggerating when I say I could hear genuinely sobbing from some people in my screening. And it wasn’t solely relegated to the kids either.
In conclusion, with a tighter script and better characterisation for our titular Big Fish, this movie could’ve been one of the real masterpieces of the animated genre. But even as it is, it’s still an absolutely fantastic watch with an emotional third act that deserves nothing but the strongest kudos. In a year where Western animation has been fairly underwhelming all around, it’s good to see other countries picking up the banner. This is definitely one to recommend if you’re curious.