Sometimes, it’s best to just settle back in your seat and let the images wash over you. The animated fantasy Big Fish & Begonia offers a bombardment of colour and surrealism right from the beginning: shoals of fish swim through the sky; babies hatch from gelatinous pods at the bottom of the ocean. Even when the end credits roll, it’s anyone’s guess what it all means, but the visuals are certainly fascinating while it lasts.
Big Fish & Begonia is the rare example of a major animated film to emerge from China; unlike its neighbouring Japan, the country isn’t all that known for its contributions to the medium – one of the more recent exceptions being Kung Fu Panda 3, a third of which was animated in Shanghai. With this in mind, maybe we can forgive the animation house behind it, the newly-minted B&T Studio, for the odd narrative wobble here and there.
Based on a combination of Chinese tales, Big Fish & Begonia throws us into the deep end from the outset, with its lengthy narration introducing a bewildering world of humans and demi-gods. The latter, known as the Others, are mortal beings who live in a parallel world but nevertheless exert a tangible power over our own reality: some of them can control the weather, while others hold a sway over flowers and wildlife.
As part of an old rite-of-passage, the Others are sent, at the age of 16, to the human world to see how the other half live. Chun is the latest to undergo the ritual, and after heading through a vortex of water, emerges in one of Earth’s oceans in the form of a red dolphin. There, a chance encounter with a fishing net leaves Chun trapped and on the cusp of death; a young fisherman swims to her rescue, but drowns in the process. Wracked with guilt, Chun heads back to her own world and makes a bargain to bring Kun back to life – though because we’re back in the land of the Others, the fisherman’s reincarnated as a fish in a bowl, which Chun names Kun.
Thus begins an odd love triangle between Chun and the reincarnated fisherman – who’s growing rapidly by the minute – and another boy, an Other named Qiu. The more Kun grows, the more the adult Others begin to fear that this fishy interloper will bring trouble to their peaceful world; Chun and Qiu therefore plan to find a way to send the fisherman home – a process that will involve yet more bravery and self-sacrifice.
Written and directed by Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun, Big Fish & Begonia will inevitably draw comparisons with the work of Studio Ghibli. With its brave heroine and lyrical fantasy, it’s easy to see similarities between this movie (largely hand-animated, but with liberal splashes of cel-shaded CGI) and such Ghibli highlights as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and the more lightweight Ponyo. Whether it’s because of a lower budget or less technical experience, however, it’s arguable that Big Fish & Begonia‘s visuals pale somewhat in comparison to Japan’s best-known animation house.
Pixar and Disney animator John Lasseter once complimented Studio Ghibli’s co-founder Hayao Miyazaki for the weight and volume in his animation, which is something the characters roundly lack in Big Fish & Begonia; their movements are somewhat stiff, and for all the saturated colour and sense of scale, the compositions and quality of line often resemble something like TV’s Avatar: The Last Airbender rather than the exquisite attention to detail seen in, say, Princess Mononoke.
It’s when our gaze turns to the non-human characters that Big Fish & Begonia shows real signs of life. While Chun and Qiu never quite jump out of the screen as protagonists, the film’s artists have clearly relished the process of creating the incidental characters that live among the Others. There’s a creepy old man called the Soul Keeper, who lives alone with his menagerie of cats; an even creepier Rat Matron, who seems oddly aroused by the smell of raw sewage (now there’s something we don’t tend see in Ghibli films). All these characters – and dozens more besides – are what captivate the eye, even when the story refuses to really click into gear.
At 105 minutes, Big Fish & Begonia should feel brisk, but its tendency to focus on grand statements – Kun, now a huge red dolphin, repeatedly leaping from the sea in slow-motion, Chun standing on cliffs with her arms thrown open wide – throw the brakes on an already slight story. More time spent fleshing out the protagonists might have given the finale an emotional heft to match its splashy visuals.
Despite the lumpy pacing, Big Fish & Begonia still has much to recommend it. Kiyoshi Yoshida’s music is sumptuous (you may recognise his name from the superb sci-fi anime, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), and there’s enough craft in here to suggest that the movie’s fledgling animation studio, B&T, have even greater things to offer in the future.
Big Fish & Begonia is out in UK cinemas on the 18th April.