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Big Fish & Begonia
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by Jay Seaver

"Colorful enough for kids to go for it."
3 stars

I wonder, a bit, if I would have enjoyed "Big Fish & Begonia" a bit more if it had played subtitled (as advertised) rather than in an English dub, or if a better handle on Chinese folklore would help. It would have still bumped up against some technical issues, I think, but, likely would have had a lot fewer "wait, why" moments. I don't imagine kids would stop and scratch their heads quite so much, but this movie is just far enough off the beaten path outside of China that kids might have to be led there.

It opens in a world beneath our own, where the ocean is like the sky, populated by magical beings who control the natural world above. Chun will control the blossoming of begonias someday, and like the other sixteen-year-old godlings, she is to spend a week in the world above in the form of a red dolphin, observing how their action affect it, though she is not to make contact with the humans. She almost doesn't make it back, getting caught in a net during a storm, but a young fisherman frees her at terrible cost. Overwhelmed by guilt, she makes a deal with the man who keeps the souls of humans who have passed on - they take the form of fish in this other world - intending to raise the one there on her account until it is large enough to swim home and return to life. But though her friend Qiu will help her with anything - he's got a powerful crush - they're just kids, and not prepared for how others will see this as a chance to satisfy their own ambitions, or how Chun raising "Kun" may have dire consequences for their whole world.

That last part, which sets up the danger of the situation, too often doesn't make a whole lot of sense; Big Fish & Begonia is the sort of fantasy where every use of magic comes with strikingly cataclysmic side effects not detailed until after the fact that don't necessarily follow from the actual situation, with seemingly just as many adjustments to actually achieve the desired result after the fact. It shows a fair amount of plotting where, even if simply telling the truth might have made things worse, it never even seems to come up as an option. On top of that, the writers seem afraid of the life triangle at the center - understandable, when two of the people involved are almost never human at the same time, and making them seemingly sexless at the end just confuses matters more.

It's a fairy tale and a fantasy, so some of this is expected, but filmmaker Liang Xuan and co-director Zhang Chun often seem to be stitching nifty images and ideas together into something that's not always coherent and sometimes very loosely plotted (narration from an older Chun doesn't help much, and I don't know how much is lost in translation). Still, there's a strong core here; the idea of teenagers learning responsibility this way is fine use of fantasy to make basic concepts literal. Pets train us to look out for other people, and the fish Chun tends now could literally become family or friend later; the plants on the windowsill are the first step to tending a much larger environment.

The traditional-style animation looks nice, at least, even if the human characters have a very generic-anime look to them; the simple cartooning expressive in part because the features are kind of familiar. There's often a whimsical creativity at work in the fantasy world's creatures and less-humanoid inhabitants that comes as a delightful, Miyazaki-esque surprise; Liang has neat ideas that involve cats, rats, flaming hair, and more. The integration of obviously CGI elements doesn't go so well as when Disney was adding them to their traditionally animated features, though; the digital imagery sticks out like a shoe thumb and lands smack in the center of the uncanny valley, not looking real or fitting with the 2-D images at all (there are credits for stereo conversion, despite the main style not being one that lends it to a third dimension at all).

Distributors Shout! Factory and Funimation are giving Big Fish & Begonia a fair theatrical run in the United States, with English-dubbed showtimes seeming to be the default rather than subtitled Mandarin, and that's perhaps not for the best - this doesn't get the sort of name voice cast that Disney and GKids assembled for French and Japanese imports, and it often plays as the main pair coming across as somewhat flat while the other characters are played broad. Symbols in the scenery will be subtitled in a way that distracts rather than highlights how the scene represents such an element, while screenfuls of text will be left as-is.

Maybe the subtitled version smooths things over or sounds better; I wasn't quite impressed enough with one to try again less than a week later. "Big Fish & Begonia" has a fair amount of nifty stuff to recommend it, even if animated films from a different culture aren't visual treasure troves, and the kids who are likely its main target (despite the PG-13 rating it received in the U.S.) will probably eat it up without worrying too much about the details that don't hold together.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=32181&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/18/18 19:22:17
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USA
  06-Apr-2018 (PG-13)

UK
  18-Apr-2018 (PG)

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Xuan Liang
  Chun Zhang

Written by
  Xuan Liang

Cast
  Guanlin Ji
  Shangqing Su
  Timmy Xu



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