You’ll meet many colorful monsters and/or godlike supporting characters but not a single believable lead protagonist in the busy but uninspired Chinese animated fantasy Big Fish & Begonia, a loose blend of Chinese myths featured in centuries-old collections like Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi and The Classics of Mountains and Seas. This is an unfortunately insurmountable oversight since the fate of the movie’s heaven-like afterworld — densely populated with shape-shifting dolphin spirits and headless winged pigs — depends on a doomed romantic triangle that involves plucky teenage dolphin Chun (voiced by Guanlin Ji), her square-jawed human crush Qiu (Shangqing Su), and her loyal dolphin BFF Kun (Weizhou Xu).
Co-writer–director duo Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang loosely based the characters of Chun, Qiu, and Kun on preexisting archetypes, so Chinese folklore buffs might have a general idea of why, exactly, these characters would repeatedly make Faustian bargains with trickster demigods in order to rescue one another from evil human whalers and venomous two-headed snakes. But anyone unfamiliar with this type of story might wonder how these kids could be so naive as to stake their souls on a game of mah-jongg with a fish-cyclops called “The Soultaker” (Shih-Chieh King) or a dance with a horny sewer dweller named “Rat Madam” (Shulan Pan). Chun’s, Qiu’s, and Kun’s motives and emotions ostensibly get revealed, through pseudo-soulful crying jags and ponderous declarations like, “Without happiness, what’s the meaning of longevity?” Liang and Zhang’s young heroes would be far more universal if they were just credibly hormonal.
Big Fish & Begonia
Directed by Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang
Shout! Studios and Funimation Films
Opens April 6, Regal Union Square
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 4, 2018