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Chinese animation Big Fish and Begonia is bizarre, beguiling

This beautiful and strange new movie recalls Studio Ghibli with its dreamlike fantasy.

Fishing for compliments.


Fantasy is the imagining of impossible or improbable things, but in a landscape dominated by Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings you'd be forgiven for thinking it just means medieval history with pointy ears. Which is why the spellbindingly dreamlike animated film Big Fish and Begonia is such a breath of fresh air -- its psychedelic imaginings represent fantasy in the truest sense.

Fans of the genre will of course know that fantasy is much more than just a hinterland of bearded blokes whacking each other with enchanted swords somewhere between Middle-earth and Westeros. But it's fair to say that sword 'n' sorcery casts a long shadow, especially over mainstream perception of the genre. The TV adaptation of Game of Thrones in particular worked hard -- at least in its early days -- to downplay its more fantastical elements, and a great show it is too.

But there's always room for beautiful weirdness, and Big Fish and Begonia has that in abundance.

Big Fish and a small pond.


Animated films from China are fairly rare, but BF&B has been a big hit in its home country by combining ancient folk tales with the dreamlike lyrical style of Japan's Studio Ghibli. The charmingly strange and strangely charming story follows Chun, a young girl who lives in an idyllic reflection of our human world. As part of a coming-of-age tradition, she transforms into a red dolphin and explores our oceans, as one does. Inevitably she comes a cropper by breaking a sacred rule about avoiding contact with humans.

Something's fishy.


It's here that the film takes a surprising turn that launches us onto a path that feels truly unexpected and unpredictable, which is such a blessed rarity. It just goes to show, exciting unpredictability doesn't have to mean piling on randomness or weirdness. It can be as simple as doing something other stories wouldn't.

I mean, Big Fish and Begonia totally piles on a bunch of weirdness. Yet it never feels random: There's an element of the fever dream about it, but it feels like there's a logic there even if we can't quite get our mortal minds around it. They tell stories differently in the dreamworld.

Having a whale of a time.


And the phantasmagorical dreamworld is rendered beautifully, in a mix of CG and a more traditional style of animation. Soulful characters and swathes of colour painted across vast landscapes bring this tale to life.

Returning to her otherworldly home, Chun adopts a magic dolphin. But her innocent gesture drives a wedge between her and her family, as well as threatening the whole realm with a cataclysmic apocalypse. In between, she faces a cyclopean guardian of lost souls and a flighty rat queen, both of whom exact a devastating price for their involvement. By turns comic and creepy, these vivid and bizarre beings aren't so much villains as characters with their own agendas. The film is full of elements like this that defy easy explanation, instead suggesting layers beyond our understanding in a world full of surprises. 

Admittedly that's a fancy way of saying it doesn't always make sense -- but in a good way. And even if the narrative is occasionally meandering or unknowable, the emotion of the story is crystal clear. Chun's relationship may be with a magic dolphin, but it's a heartfelt and universal story that'll melt any cynicism.

Just as Big Fish and Begonia's heroine takes a leap of faith into uncharted waters and magical new worlds, the film will take you on a mesmeric trip into true fantasy where literally anything can happen.

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