Movie Review: ‘BIG FISH & BEGONIA’ – a visual feast that leaves story adrift

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

BIG FISH & BEGONIA

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.
Director: Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang
Cast (Mandarin language): Guanlin JiShangqing SuTimmy Xu and Shulan Pan
Cast (English language): Stephanie ShehJohnny Yong BoschTodd Haberkorn and Greg Chun

There are many emotions that can be felt in Shout! Studios’ new film, BIG FISH & BEGONIA, a part hand-drawn and digitally animated feature that mirrors the look and feel of a Studio Ghibli movie.

Its tale of loss, sacrifice and mortality scratches an itch of truth that we often find ourselves meditating on. While the plot points don’t exactly align, it’s a visually stimulating adventure to behold.

The story centers on a world within our own, where higher beings control time and the changing of the seasons. On the day of her 16th birthday, Chun (voiced by Guanlin Ji in Mandarin and Stephanie Sheh in English, depending on which version you watch) goes on a Rumspringa-like initiation to explore the human world and adulthood. Only it’s not like THE LITTLE MERMAID. Chun doesn’t get to explore the fish-out-of-water life that Ariel did to lock lips with a cute boy. Instead she becomes a red dolphin.

The problem is we barely get a sense of Chun or a fully-rendered perspective of her world before she goes on her journey. About 15 minutes in, we’re already at the main conflict: Chun gets stuck in a net during a bad storm and is about to die. This is before a young man jumps in to save her at the cost of his own life. Chun is so moved by the young man’s actions that she makes a deal to give him life again. But there’s a price to pay.

The world beneath the ocean. Courtesy of Shout! Studios.

On paper, this storyline reads well and is accessible. I only wish the film could have simply focused on this more to better earn our investment. Regrettably, BIG FISH & BEGONIA spends too much time in its second act adding unnecessary baggage, such as one villainous character that runs amok with a horde of rats. While it may come from Chinese mythology, there are more subtle and leaner ways to go about the story.

It took Chinese directors Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang 12 years to make the film. They used crowdfunding sources before landing it big with a major international studio. For the number of scenic landscapes and stunning visuals, it was time well spent.

The feature opens with enough splendor to make you want to pause the film and take a screenshot of all that’s on display. To see whales swim in the clouds, all the beautiful architecture and unique, culturally rich characters, your eyes will be glued to the screen.

BIG FISH & BEGONIA may not be the big catch it could have been, but there’s a dreamlike quality to the film that’s commendable. Perhaps that’s why the plot seems so arbitrary, as dreams have a randomness to them. As cool as it is to think about and as lovely as the visuals are, you can’t escape the feeling that the storyline could have been reeled in a little tighter.

Grade: B-

BIG FISH & BEGONIA is now playing in select theaters.
Dallas-Fort Worth: Now playing at the Alamo Drafthouse in Richardson, AMC Grapevine Mills and Cinemark Legacy in Plano.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.