In the span of a mere two decades, China's movie industry boomed to become a genuine Hollywood competitor. It's struggling to get a foot on the ground outside of Asia, but qualitywise they're already a worthy challenger. It's not just live-action cinema they're interested in, they also want to be a respected player in the animation sphere, and some of their more recent attempts have shown great promise. Xiaopeng Tian's Deep Sea [Shen Hai] is the next in a series of Chinese animated films that illustrates China has something to offer besides simple copycat behavior.
Stylistically, China has been trying to marry Eastern and Western styles of animation. Deep Sea is a perfect example of this trend. The 3D CG art style is clearly influenced by Pixar and all of its American wannabes (though it goes for more realistic proportions), creatively the film is more indebted to the fantasy worlds popularized by Ghibli (and Miyazaki in particular). And to make it even more interesting, the animation itself has a dash of experimentation that made me think of the work of Studio 4°C. Where Deep Sea shines is that it manages to combine all these different influences without feeling like a random collage of influences.
Instead, the film acts as a stern reminder of what happens when one studio dominates an entire art form niche. Both Pixar and Ghibli are seen as aspirational standards, with many (if not most) competitors doing their best to mimic their success. None of the copycats quite manage to do so, meanwhile, the originals will feel little pressure to change up their game, as they can't be defeated at their own game. The result is an industry that becomes rather stale and unadventurous, and houses like Ghilbi or Pixar deserve more flack for that, even when their output maintains a respectable standard.
Shenxiu has a hard time getting over the loss of her mother. Her father already moved on and her stepmom neglects her. When a storm hits the family on a boat vacation, Shenxiu wakes up the next morning in a fantasy world. She is stalked by a creature that promises to help her with locating her mom. A pirate gang gets in the way when they catch the creature and want to exploit it for their own gain. Shenxiu decides to follow the pirates, hoping they can reunite her with her mom. What she doesn't realize is that the sorrow that is eating her from the inside is threatening the world she ended up in.
I'm not a big fan of the 3D CG look popularised by the US animation studios, the use of slightly more realistic proportions here doesn't really change that, and neither does the fact that the technical execution is on par with the best the US has to offer. What does have a tremendous impact is the manic camera work, the added (artistic) visual effects, and the constant explosion of color. It is almost impossible to rest your eyes on one particular part of the screen, as every single pixel seems to be brimming with life. Deep Sea is one of the boldest, brightest, and most committed maximalist showings I've seen this year, and it's all the better for it. This is exactly what's been missing from its US counterparts.
The soundtrack isn't quite up there with the visuals, though that's par for the course. There are some musical bits that betray the film's American influences, and the score comes off a little childish and haphazard. As the film turns more serious and dramatic the music follows suit, but too often crosses over into sentimental territory. It's just not as refined, nor as bold as any of the other stylistic choices made elsewhere. The original dub is fine though, giving the characters clear (and enjoyable) identities that help bring them to life. I'm not sure if there's an English dub (I'm sure there will be if it ever gets released in the West), but I see.no reason to skip the original dub.
Deep Sea is a dense film. Not only will the maximalist style demand a lot of energy from most people, the original lore (it's not a cookie-cutter fantasy universe), the more abstract/almost experimental ending, and the emotional roller coaster make for a very demanding watch. I consider that a big plus, it's always nice to see animation films that are bold and ambitious, but people looking for light and relaxing children's entertainment better think twice before putting this film on. Though definitely a film fit for younger viewers, it takes a little more to experience it to its fullest.
I admit I went in with relatively low expectations, China's animation industry is still a little fickle and there are as many misses as there are hits. Deep Sea literally blew me away though. The film's overwhelming visuals and its bright and bustling fantasy universe were quick to pull me in, the experimental touches and the onslaught of visual detail kept me glued to the screen. All this lovely excess made it easy to forgive the film its somewhat lacking soundtrack and childish comedy. Fingers crossed this film makes it to the West, it would be a real affront if it didn't.