“Animation to me is the purest form of art …”
– Guillermo del Toro, director of Pinocchio
There’s this strange perception of animation as lesser-than in terms of storytelling. Perhaps it’s due to generations of children who grew up with Looney Toons and yet failed to see the intersection of music, art, and comedy that made each outrageous adventure so infectious that some passed them down to later generations. Movies like the Spider-Verse series or Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022) stand out in America because they discard quite a few rules, yet films like Your Name. (2017), Mirai (2018), Funan (2019), Promare (2019), Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2020), BELLE (2021), Pompo: The Cinéphile (2022), and BLUE GIANT (2023) – each examples of international animation – may be appreciated by animation-heads or cinephiles, but may otherwise go unnoticed. Another film that’s likely to follow the same path as the latter group is the latest project from director Tian Xiaopeng (Monkey King: Hero Is Back), a fantastical adventure of heartbreak and healing called Deep Sea (深海), leaving the festival circuit to finally receive a wider release in the U.S. via Viva Pictures. Through animation, Tian is able to mix visual styles to dizzying degrees, creating a swirling and whirling dervish of color that is as visually complex and overpowering as it is guileless, often to the detriment of audience investment.
Young girl Shenxiu (voiced by Wang Tingwen) joins her father, stepmother, and young brother for a 6-day/7-night cruise, the first time that she’s going to see the ocean. However, what should be a joyous family trip turns sullen as Shenxiu is mostly pushed away by her father in favor of spending time with her brother. To make matters worse, her mother’s textual responses have grown more terse over time since the separation. Alone on the boat, she wanders around, taking in the carnival-esque sights and doing her best to remain small in the presence of the revelers. On the first night, as a storm rages outside, Shenxiu sees something through her porthole, prompting her to go above deck where the wind is loudest and the waves highest. Looking out above the guardrail, she hears the song of her mother and the fabled Hyjinks, a creature she was told of as a child, only to get plunged into the water. Helpless at first, Shenxiu finds herself in a colorful world of vibrant, swirling pigment and the only assistance she can find is by making a bargain with flamboyant head chief of the Deep Sea Restaurant Nanhe (voiced by Su Xin). But can the chief be trusted when their goals are at strange odds or will the mysterious man with his own fears to run from be the hero she needs?
Deep Sea is the epitome of the film you can’t make in live-action. Specifically, while aspects of it have been made (my mind goes straight to the painting sequence in What Dreams May Come (1998)), to sustain the world and the illusion of reality would quickly devolve into something that looks more like Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over (2003). That’s not shade on the Robert Rodriguez film as we back the Cortez family and all Machete products in this house, so much an admission that, even today, the level of overlap in visual styles wouldn’t work in any other format than animation. This genre allows for a 3D animated character like Shenxiu to exist with and interact within a space that’s as three-dimensionally designed as she, but is draw or animated with different shading and movement speeds. Even the depiction of the sea is, at times, presented in an entirely different artistic style, sometimes in the same 3D method as Shenxiu, sometimes as watercolors, and, through the total use of animation, there’s no break in the narrative’s reality in the way that live-action within a heavily CG space often looks (ex., The BFG (2016)). Speaking of compliments, the character design of Nanhe is elastic in the way that makes one think of a Stephen Chow performance (Kung Fu Hustle; The God of Cookery), where the movements are just slightly beyond human capability or comprehension yet don’t break any rules established by the film.
There is, however, a major downside, and it’s two-fold: the cinematography and the narrative structure. The first is that for as wondrous and beautiful the world of Deep Sea is, it’s often too chaotic to process, making for an incredibly overwhelming visual experience. First-time feature cinematographer Cheng Mazhiyuan rarely keeps the camera still, whether it’s being tossed alongside Shenxiu during the storm, trying to keep pace with her as she runs, or any number of other moments where the camera attempts to match movement. In concert with this, when it’s not moving, there’s often so much happening on screen that one doesn’t know where to look or what to focus on. On the positive side, people who connect with Deep Sea are as likely to find as many secrets hidden within it going on in the background as those of the Spider-Verse films do. On the negative, with something happening everywhere and almost exactly all at once, the persistent frenzy of visual stimulation quickly leads the audience to a point where even just letting the images wash over you turns to a difficult proposition.
Regarding the narrative, the Tian’s script follows a fairly typical “girl is transported to a magical realm” throughline wherein the journey itself is born out of a need to escape. Evoking The Wizard of Oz (1939) in its execution, Deep Sea projects and foreshadows its outcome even before the start of the adventure proper, making it difficult to feel as though we’re joining Shenxiu on this versus waiting for her to catch up. Whether it’s her following a creature from one of her mother’s stories, the evading of a red-tinted persistent specter dubbed “Red Phantom” that attacks each time Shenxiu’s melancholy grows, the presence of the Deep Sea Restaurant, or Nanhe himself, each of them are representative of something that the narrative establishes so well as to remove the mystery before the climax presents a film-definitive definition.
Despite these issues, the vocal performances convey the intended emotion, the animation is so beautiful, and composer Dou Peng’s (A Better Tomorrow) score is so moving that if one were to observe the film with an isolated track, one could still *feel* what Tian seeks to accomplish in Deep Sea. Additionally, the technical skill on display with the animation makes one want to see this same technique applied to other fantasy tales, as the merging of visual forms into a cohesive yet distinctly layered (even if discordant at times) fictional world is the definition of “mind-blowing.” To this point, if someone were to take Fengshen Yanyi and utilize this same method to tell its story of Heaven and Earth (realized in a new live-action form this year with Creation of the Gods I: Kingdom of Storms), audiences would be in for a real treat as each specific location and character animated with their own specific look, just as presented within Deep Sea, would lay people out with their majesty. That part may be wishful thinking, but, at least, for now, we can marvel at what Tien has accomplished and get excited over what might be.
In select theaters November 24th, 2023.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.