Big Fish fails to compare to other fantastical animations due to its convoluted and at times illogical plot.
In the vein of classic Ghibli films such as Spirited Away and Ponyo, co-directors Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang strive to infuse their mystical Big Fish & Begonia with homages to Chinese legends. The film’s combination of hand drawn and digital animation, frequently tasked with depicting the abstract and otherworldly, captures the imagination, which undoubtedly helped it become the second highest grossing animated film produced in China. For a project that involved so many funding hurdles, that is a massive achievement; however, it may not receive the same reaction in the U.S. Big Fish fails to compare to other fantastical animations due to its convoluted and at times illogical plot. Characters make obviously poor decisions with little explanation, and the climactic resolution is far too drawn out. Its visual aesthetic is its best bet to overcome a disappointing plot.
Big Fish & Begonia enhances its roots in Chinese folklore with a regular voiceover narration by Chun (Guanlin Ji), now over 100 years old and recalling the momentous events of her teenage years. Opening credits illustrate a spiritual world beneath the human world whose inhabitants visit Earth as dolphins. On her 16th birthday, Chun transforms into an orange dolphin and is warned to avoid all contact with humans during her two-week visit. But when she gets caught in a fishing net, a boy cuts her free and drowns in the process. The deal Chun makes to give this human life again puts her and her spirit world in danger.
There are elements of The Little Mermaid here, to be sure, but Liang and Zhang insert several minor characters lifted from folklore. Chun may not make a deal with the grim reaper over a game of chess, but a one-eyed fish aka soul keeper who decides fates based on games of mahjong is close enough. The rat queen seems self-explanatory – she lives in the sewer and, naturally, collects souls of sinful humans who then become her rat minions; surprisingly, she’s kind of a good spirit. Chun and her besotted friend, Qiu (Shangqing Su), have run-ins with a host of spirits and creatures as they attempt to save Kun, the fish reincarnation of Chun’s human savior, and keep the balance of the human and spiritual worlds.
Chun is tasked with keeping Kun alive and secret until he may return to the human world, yet their lives and fates are now forever interconnected. No one in her world but Qui accepts this bargain and helps her, yet even Qui has inconsistent motives. He puts Kun in a frozen lake to spare Chun persecution, only to later bargain his own life for hers. Despite these huge sacrifices, this semi-love triangle is never fully addressed as such, even as Chun’s father sacrifices himself to save Qui after a snakebite.
The sheer number of obstacles and terrifying demigods who seek to hurt Kun or manipulate Chun and Qui through bargaining severely slows down the film’s pace. Granted, this is a Chinese epic, but it loses audience interest by incorporating so many minor characters and stressful subplots and failing to give Qui tangible motives. Pacing and character development aside, Big Fish & Begonia is a gorgeously rendered fantasy. Hopefully the film’s success in China will ensure future projects from Liang and Zhang.