China produces quite a few animated features every year, though only a few reach North America. BIG FISH & BEGONIA, made in 2016 has achieved tremendous success both critically and financially, thus finally making it to North American screens. It plays and looks at times like the Studio Ghibli films as the film shares common trays like fantasy in alternate universes as well as young innocent true love.
The film’s universal appeal lies in human being’s love for fairy tales. BIG FISH & BEGONIA has all the elements of an epic fantasy with magic, romance, sacrifice, monsters and a coming of rites passage that involves a long journey filled with wonders and danger.
For an animated feature, the story is quite complicated and requires a bit of concentration to follow. The story is set in a mystical realm that exists beneath the human world, populated by magical-powered beings. The protagonist is a girl named Chun and when the film opens she undergoes a coming-of-age ritual where she is transported through a portal of water to experience the human world in the form of a red dolphin. She is warned several times never to engage but to stay away from those dreaded human beings, which means she has to fall in love with one – shades of THE LITTLE MERMAID. In the human world, she encounters a human boy who lives by the sea and reveres aquatic creatures. During a storm, Chun in the form of a red dolphin is tangled in a fishing net near the boy’s house, and the boy drowns while freeing her from the net. Chun returns to her world, taking the boy’s ocarina with her.
Chun bargains with the soul keeper, a resident of her world who collects virtuous departed souls from the human world, to return the boy to life. The soul keeper, a real businessman takes half of her lifespan in exchange for giving her the boy’s soul, which has manifested in this world in the form of a baby dolphin. He advises her that she must nurture the dolphin to adulthood in order to return the boy’s soul to the human world. Qiu, Chun’s childhood friend, discovers her undertaking; since beings from the human world are forbidden, he promises to help her keep her task secret. Together, they name the dolphin Kun, after a massive fish of legend.
The romances are between Chun and Kun and between Qiu and Chun. But Chun treats Qiu as an older brother which makes him really sad. Still, Qiu will do anything for Chun including sacrificing his life for her.
The adventures take the audience through many wondrous as well as frightening places including a big sewer filled with shit and rats where they encounter the rat matron. She is scary to Qiu and Chun but hilarious to the audience.
The animation is nothing short of spectacular, the animators unafraid to include scenes of snow, fire and water which are difficult to animate. The fairly tale atmosphere with Chinese architecture add to the film’s beauty.
BIG FISH & BEGONIA is the third largest grossing Chinese animated feature ever after KUNG FU PANDA 3 and MONKEY KING. On a budget of 30 million Chinese Yuan, it grossed, up to the time of writing CN¥565 which translates to a profit of 1800%. Hopefully, the box-office success will spurn more animated features from B&T Studios.