'Big Fish & Begonia': Film Review

The shape-shifting of water, richly rendered.

Upon its 2016 release on home turf, this debut feature became China's second-highest-grossing locally produced animated feature of all time.

With its dynamic fusion of Chinese fairy tales, freshly invented fantasy, coming-of-age adventure and poignant love story, Big Fish & Begonia is a watery fable for grownups (and older kids). Its blend of 2D and CG animation uses a radiant palette, and its story moves between the spirit and animals worlds with an undercurrent of yearning and waves of pure delight.

Building upon a seven-minute flash animation that struck a chord online, filmmakers Xuan Liang and Chung Zhang produced the feature over a 12-year period, through significant crowdfunding that spurred indie financing. It arrives stateside — beginning with Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco — in two versions, Mandarin and English, both choices available at each theater where it's playing. The former option offers more poetic bang for the buck — in the subtitles as well as the sibilance of the spoken language, with the voiceover narration used more judiciously and to stronger effect.

The tale's 117-year-old narrator is looking back at her 16-year-old self. Like everyone else her age who inhabits the mystical undersea realm, teenage Chun (Stephanie Sheh for the English version, Guanlin Ji in the Mandarin) is about to embark on a weeklong rite of passage. Rising through the sky of her world, she surfaces as a red dolphin in the earthly ocean. She's dazzled by the beauty of the human world — her elders downplayed its virtues — and especially by the young fisherman (Todd Haberkorn; Xu Weizhou) who rescues her when she's caught in a net. His struggle to release her from the rope webbing is wrought with terrific, gripping tension — a storytelling element that the animators master as confidently as the winsome details that punctuate the action.

The fates of Chun and the human boy, Kun, are indelibly entwined when he dies in a whirlpool and she becomes the self-appointed guardian of his soul. In one of the wonderfully weird precincts of her world, she locates him, or the essence of him, in a repository of row upon row of tiny fish, asleep in glass bowls — the souls of dead humans. That Chun can identify Kun among the seemingly identical finned dreamers goes to the heart of the notion of connection that propels the story — a between-worlds fluidity recently popularized by Guillermo del Toro in The Shape of Water.

For not just the shape-shifting central duo but many of the characters, including Chun's herbalist grandfather, saving one another means the very real risk of losing one another. The theme of sacrifice is stirring, particularly in the case of the unrequited love for Chun of a fellow spirit-realm inhabitant, a slightly older boy (Johnny Yong Bosch; Shangqing Su) who braves rat-filled sewers and two-headed snakes to help her in her quest to guide Kun's soul back to life in the human world. That quest involves a few tough bargains for Chun as she nurtures the puppyish fish — a lovely, simply rendered creation — toward a new incarnation, watching him grow, fly and sprout a unicorn horn along the way.

From the dolphin-shaped flute that serves as a kind of talisman between Chun and Kun to the one-eyed mah-jongg players who are actually cats, Big Fish & Begonia abounds in playful touches without relying on the overly busy jokiness of many animated films.

Screenwriter Xuan Liang and his co-director have conjured a new myth. It's drawn from folklore and cultural history — some of their visuals were inspired by the architecture of Fujian Province in southern China — no less than it's the product of flights of fancy and supernatural what-ifs. The powerful idea of the ocean as our source and our destiny is nothing new, but in Big Fish it's also the place that connects spirit and form, as real as the outstretched hand that closes the saga on a note of hard-won hope on the earthly plane.

Distributor: Shout! Studios
Production companies: Bi An Tian Culture, Beijing Enlight Pictures, Horgos Coloroom Pictures
Mandarin cast: Guanlin Ji, Shangqing Su, Xu Weizhou (Timmy Xu), Shulan Pan, Shih-Chieh King, Lifang Xue, Yuanyuan Zhang, Jiu'er, Zie Zhang
English cast: Stephanie Sheh, Johnny Yong Bosch, Fong Sung, Todd Haberkorn, John White, Cindy Robinson, Goddess Wu, Cassandra Morris, Greg Chun, Erika Ishii, Kate Davis, Yuri Lowenthal
Directors: Xuan Liang, Chung Zhang
Screenwriter: Xuan Liang
Producers: Chi-Leung Chan, Xuan Liang, Jie Chen, Yang Wu, Tong Liu, Dan Chuba
Executive producers: Changtian Wang, Chun Zhang, Xiaoping Li, Qiao Yi
Production designer: Chun Zhang
Editor: Yiran Tu
Composer: Kiyoshi Yoshida

Rated PG-13, 105 minutes