Blending moments of utter tranquility with unforgiving emotional heights, Big Fish & Begonia had me floored in its opening act and kept me hooked until the very end. Unlike most of the content reviewed on this blog, I stumbled upon this film by chance and found myself in shock that it flew under my radar.
Big Fish & Begonia (2016)
Original Title: Dayu Haitang
Actually for a bit of context, my mum recommended this film to me when she found it playing on Film 4 – one of the only channels over here that broadcasts anime films I might add. I credit a lot of my film taste to my parents so I looked forward to watching Big Fish & Begonia. Also, I know my mum’s favourite Ghibli film is Ponyo so (if the title didn’t give it away) I knew there would be an emphasis on the beauty of the ocean which is a big plus for me.
Plot Synopsis (Spoiler Free)
Big Fish & Begonia tells the story of an unseen mystical world where our protagonist, Chun, is allowed to ritualistically explore the human world (among all other sixteen year-olds) for her first and only time. Transforming into dolphins during their journey, the teenagers must return back to their home world after seven days or be forever locked in the human world. On the seventh day, Chun faces entrapment before a human boy gives his life to save hers and allow passage before the portal closes.
Indebted to the boy for saving her life, Chun risks everything by reviving his soul and secretly caring for his new physical body – a tiny dolphin. Facing total abandonment and defying the Gods of nature themselves, Chun must sacrifice more than she can give to ensure the boy’s soul can return to the human world.
A No-Holds-Barred Film for All Ages
This Chinese animated fantasy adventure delivers surprisingly mature themes while remaining visually captivating to keep children entertained. It broadcasts with a PG rating here and I would say that’s quite surprising considering how far it pushes the emotional beats and the real threats within the narrative.
While the themes of adventure and growing up mesh well with the young audience (and of course the ages of the main cast), the story focuses on some older characters in the meantime. This allows for some darker subtext to seep through. There is a real threat of loss in the film that is consistent from beginning to end. The opening monologue straight up tells the audience that Chun might not ever see her home world ever again at the age of sixteen.
The humans in this film aren’t exactly painted as perfect either. Taking on the form of a dolphin allows for some pretty on-the-nose but whaling commentary that, thankfully, doesn’t distract from the plot. In a mystical world where some creatures have the ability to conjure tsunamis and be reborn as nature itself, keeping a mortal threat to the main cast results in a gripping narrative that could have been easily mishandled.
A Gorgeous Experience – Visually and Audibly
Big Fish & Begonia has one of the most diverse soundtracks I have ever heard in an animated feature. There is a playlist on YouTube of the film’s music that is perfect for productivity. One minute you’re listening to a slow orchestral piece focusing on a single flutist and the next you’re listening to a heavy drumbeat with triumphant violins. In particular, the soundtrack repeats this one motif and depending on the mood of the scene it will be played on a different instrument. I’m no musician so that might be really basic stuff but it really showed here and acted as a great marker for the crazy story the film manages to handle.
As I mentioned, I went into this blind whereas I usually peruse through trailers or promotional material to get an idea of what to expect. I did not expect the film to look this good. Honestly bless the animators that worked on this; the attention to detail in a film of such scope is incredible. The backgrounds are so vivid and the epic scale of the story allows for a huge variety of settings to be explored. Likewise, we get to see a certain few locations in more than one season. Getting to see how idyllic this world is, no matter the season, is one of the more visually stimulating elements of the film.
A Heartfelt Story that could only work as an Animated Movie
One of the reasons I enjoy animated films so much is what they can achieve compared to live-action. Yes, there are limitations on both sides. However, Big Fish & Begonia is a film I never want to see as a live-action remake. Aside from the obvious elements where you physically couldn’t achieve the visuals, you know the whole giant dolphin/narwhal thing going on, the intricacies of the film’s world are just too great.
Everything from the perfect lighting achieved in spiritual sequences to the expressive moments found in the higher-stakes scenes is all rooted in its existence as an Asian animated feature. This, as a fantasy adventure, has such little room for improvement that it is staggering. There’s a reason it became China’s second largest locally animated feature – in terms of its gross.
It should be pretty obvious that I recommend this film by this point, it’s an incredible watch. If the story doesn’t blow you away like it did to me, the soundtrack, visuals or characters will. Big Fish & Begonia also gets bonus points for being available to such a young audience – considering its existence as a 2D animated film. The film is a joy to watch and it feels almost criminal how small of a release it received here in the UK. Props to Film 4 for broadcasting this and showing me one of my new favourite fantasy adventures.