International title: Big Fish and Begonia
Info: This review was originally written 2017/12/06. I embedded the full movie (Japanese dub, English sub) below.
Dàyú hǎitáng is a supernatural animation movie set in a magic world, that lies beneath our oceans and is inhabited by magical spirits (oftentimes looking just like humans). After a human (Kun) is killed by accident, a girl (Chun) offers half of her life to save Kun’s soul. However, the magical creatures soon blame the appearance of Kun for dangerous, supernatural occurrences in their world. Chun journey to bring Kun to his world leads to a dramatic conclusion, nearly destroying her own world.
WHAT I LIKE
First, the animation is simply stunning. Blending classic hand-drawn animation with CGI elements, really works to represents the magical concept of the portrayed world. The backgrounds seem enormous and convey a thrilling sense of scope, which helps to build the magical sphere, in which the spirits live in. Though not as artistic, the character animation is mostly decent with clear-cut mimics and convincing movements. The world seemingly comes alive, which is always an important achievement for an animated movie.
Also, I was fascinated by the classic Chinese elements of the story. Drawn from various myths and legends about connections of the human world and the world of spirits through nature, the organic – and sometimes cryptic – storytelling really delivers in terms of scope and depth. Concerning the enormously rich atmosphere, it is not problematic that some subplots and characters’ motivations are left without resolution, cf. the mid-credit scene. The viewer is presented with a vast intermixture of traditional mythical tales that in their composition create a wonderfully fantastic atmosphere.
WHAT I DON’T LIKE
The animation quality, though stunning at times, is rather inconsistent. Minor details are lacking and therefore drops of quality during some CGI scenes are noticeable, e.g. the dog statue. Though not technically problematic, these relatively small moments do attract the viewer’s attention and are therefore distracting. Also, the pacing of faster movements is only of average quality, lacking a more cohesive editing, e.g. during the last fight.
Another thing that was quite apparent, was the structure of the narrative. While many elements were marvelous, some did not mix well, resulting in a lack of coherence. When hiding from the villagers at the well, the editing or scene composition is all but conclusive and mixes elements of montage sequences and/or foreshadowing later key moments in an unclear manner. Thus, the lack of a more stringent plot is noticeable, especially when measuring in the characters’ motivations and their development. For me, the short amount of time between Chun and Kun (in the human form) lead to a feeling of indifference regarding their fate together, lasting well into the middle of the movie. The motivation was presented before the characters were established (also for Chun’s other love interest (Qiu), which means, the viewer has to figure out which character to root for or in which character to invest. While not being a deal breaker, in connection with the sub-par structure these problems do distract.
WHY IT MATTERS
Early reviewers claimed that Dàyú hǎitáng would be the “dawn of the Chinese animation industry”. Quality-wise the movie is exceptionally well done, with beautiful animation quality, a wonderfully fantastical backstory, and a tight atmosphere. It is relevant, because it presents many classic Chinese folk tales to Western viewers, largely unfamiliar to the source material. Some Chinese reviewers also claimed, that the rich symbolism and the metaphorical language would be an issue for many Western viewers. This may be true, however, as an introduction to the supernatural Taoist stories of ancient China, this movie really motivates the viewers to dig deeper.
Some influences are rather noticeable, especially visually. Thematically, and in certain character designs Dàyú hǎitáng owes much to the series Avatar: The Last Airbender [2005-2008]. Some shots of the ocean also remind the viewer of The Life of Pi , and of course the influence of Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece Spirited Away  can also be noticed – in some smaller designs, e.g. the masked people, or the temple of the soul keeper, or in the inter-connection of the environment with magical beings. Whether these influences may or may not be intended, they bear witness to the quality of all the mentioned media products – including Dàyú hǎitáng.
The art direction and quality of Dàyú hǎitáng really help to present a fantastic view on some classic Chinese folktales. The narrative is amazing, and could provide for so much more plot, however some key moments fall short because of mediocre pacing and/or editing, and sub-par character writing.
– Based on the 2004 flash animation short of the same name.
– Integrates many traditional Chinese myths, like the Taoist classic Zhuangzi (an important collection of anecdotes, allegories, parables, and fables), classic mythic geography tale “Shan Hai Jing” (Classic of Mountains and Seas), and stories from a famous compilation of legends “Soushen Ji” (In Search of the Supernatural).
– It took the creators Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun 12 years to get their film to the large screen.