Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
BIG FISH AND BEGONIA
Though truly empowering heroines in live-action films are few and far between, we can look to the medium of animation to satiate our needs. Clearly inspired by the heroines at the heart of THE LITTLE MERMAID and SPIRITED AWAY, but falling way short of both, Director Xuan Liang’s BIG FISH AND BEGONIA is lovingly, painstakingly animated. However, it does too much wrong narratively, painting itself into a corner with the things it sets up.
Headstrong otherworldly being Chun (voiced by Guanlin Ji) is about to take her rite of passage as most sixteen-year-olds in her world do. Here’s where it gets crazy: this means transforming into a red dolphin for seven days to observe humans in their world. Her kind are the future guardians of the elements of the human world, but they mustn’t interact with it OR ELSE chaos will befall them. Guess what happens? Chun falls for a mysterious boy with a scar on his head – and she accidentally kills him as he’s trying to help her return to her world. Guilt-stricken, she brokers a scheme with a shady dealer to give up half her life in order to resurrect him. Trouble is, her world might fall apart before she can get him back to his.
This fairytale filled with Chinese folkloric iconography and mythical motifs is utterly gorgeous. The ways in which they build their fantasy world are transcendent, vibrant and fully immersive. Ethereal dragon/ horse/ dolphins leap over a canoe that escorts Chun to the House of Rushing Life on the Island of Souls. Water and wind are represented in their own unique beauty. The nefarious rat queen is very Miyazaki-inspired in design and temperament. Her rat army is the (albeit soft) comedic relief that lets the animators have some fun. The way the animators work with expressions is mind-blowing – evident in the scene where we see dolphin Chun first fall for the human boy. That love hits you square in the chest. Her inevitable goodbye to Kun (as she nicknames the red narwhal), though unabashedly evocative of FREE WILLY’s triumphant return to freedom, is poignant, exquisite and entrancing.
Nevertheless, facets within the narrative become the biggest insurmountable hurdles. The rules of the world aren’t well-defined and they morph as easily as the characters do. What rules there are grow more convoluted as the run time ticks along. Chun’s agency is robbed from her a few times. Not only does she essentially give up her life for a dude’s, puppy-dog-eyed Qiu (voiced by Shangqing Su) sacrifices his life for hers so she may live with her human paramour. It’s a selfless act – only it sours rather than sweetens. All of the blame for their unbalanced world is laid at Chun’s feet a few times. The screenplay gives more heft to the blame rather than her noble attempts at making things right. Plus, death means nothing, making it impossible to connect when there are few stakes. While I can admire the philosophy Chun’s grandpa states, about how death is not the end and birth isn’t the beginning, it doesn’t exactly lend itself to a story where stakes are absolutely necessary.
Altogether this is a bit of a wash. If you’re swept away by the fantastical visuals, this will assuredly move you. For all others searching for an inspiring, authoritative heroine, you might leave with your tanks empty.
BIG FISH AND BEGONIA played the Animation Is Film Festival on October 22. Shout Factory will release this film in the US.