Director: Tian Xiao Peng
Starring: Su Xin (苏鑫), Wang Tingwen (王亭文)
Deep Sea, Tian Xiao Peng’s follow-up to 2015’s Monkey King: Hero is Back, continues China’s impressive ventures with animation. Awash with dazzling 3D animation in the style of abstract and classical Chinese art, the movie marks a milestone in Chinese cinema - their animation is here to stay and ready to challenge the established studios at the top of the genre. Now, impressive animation is one thing, but without a strong narrative behind it, it can only help a movie so much.
Whilst the animation is wonderful, wild, inventive, and spectacular (pretty much all at once), the story itself is…good. There are plenty of moments where Xiao Peng goes for the emotional jugular - with varying degrees of success - but these are interwoven with sequences in the middle act that bog the movie down and narrative decisions which threaten to derail the powerful ending. Whilst the story is, at times, as bonkers as the visuals, it isn’t always as interesting. It was hard to shake the feeling that the story was being stretched somewhat and had Deep Sea had a shorter runtime, I believe it would have garnered superb results.
The story centres around Shenxiu (Tingwen), a young girl caught in the grip of depression as she struggles with the absence of her mother whilst her father has seemingly moved on with his new wife and family. This provides the narrative core and heart of the film and allows for many visual metaphors and allegories for the genuine darkness that is depression. Along the way she meets gourmet chef/trickster Nanhe (Xin) and together they embark on an underwater adventure to reunite Shenxiu with her mother - but, of course, things don’t always go swimmingly. The reasons for the adventure to be underwater are quickly explained and the vast majority of the movie is set under the sea.
Deep Sea is a mixed bag narratively but it does pay off with its emotional ending, though even certain story aspects relating to that feel a bit misjudged. It held together but the overall message seemed to get lost a bit in the emotion. When the story and visuals combine at the same level though, Deep Sea really takes off and provides some sensational sequences that dazzle and delight - one sequence in particular made me smile from ear to ear due to its sheer explosion of positivity - and, thankfully, the good nicely outweighs the bad here - though I couldn’t quite shake the Spirited Away similarities throughout. An interesting collection of side characters certainly helps too. Additionally, Mao Buyi, Tang Hanxiao, and MIUMIU are on hand to deliver a score packed with soaring and swelling music sprinkled with a hint of whimsy and innocence that excellently complement the entirety of the movie.
Whilst the story is no more than solid - certain narrative decisions and the runtime hinder the film overall - the delicious and dazzling animation really steals the show here. Laced with emotion and a salient message, Deep Sea just misses the mark that would have elevated it to spectacular levels.
June 8th 2023