Todd Haberkorn

140: Big Fish & Begonia Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

In the span of a few years, China has started to throw its hat into the ring of animation. They have now made it a goal to not just be the country other countries use for their animation, or the creator of a flood of mediocre features. While The Monkey King: Hero is Back was a good first step, I would hardly call it a good movie. The true first step for the country would come in the form of an animated feature that came out back in 2016, but finally got a release here in the states, Big Fish & Begonia. This unique and important title was the passion project behind the directors, Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun. It was based on a Chinese Taoist story called Zhuangzi, but apparently drew from other Chinese classic tales as well. After going through up to over a decade of financial troubles of getting funding, spending it, and lack of animation talent, the film was finally finished. It was picked up by Shout! Factory last year, and was a feature that people payed major attention to during film festivals, including being one of the big features of the Animation is Film Festival. So, was a decade of development worth the hype and final product? Well, let’s check it out.

The story follows Chu, dubbed by Stephanie Sheh. She is a 16 year-old girl who lives in a world that lies on the other side of the human world’s ocean. It’s full of powerful individuals and spirits. Chun has to go through a rite of passage, and venture into the human world as a red dolphin. While in the human world, Chun is smitten by a human male named Kun, dubbed by Todd Haberkorn. After a few days swimming around, Chun gets caught inside a fishing net, and Kun tries to save her. Luckily, he gets her out, but ends up drowning in the process. Feeling guilty as all get-out about Kun dying, Chun ends up going to a place called the Island of Souls to try and bring Kun back. She offers the caretaker, Ling Po, dubbed by JB Blanc, half of her life to bring Kun back. After that, she spends the next chunk of her life taking care of Kun as he grows bigger, and makes sure he can go back to the human world. The bad news is that while Kun is there, the world that she lives in is in major peril. Can she make sure Kun gets back alive? What is she willing to sacrifice to make sure that happens?

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A problem I see with many passion projects that take a good decade or so to fully complete is that the creators try to shove in too much into the film, and never think about cutting certain story elements, or redoing some of the script. Of course, animation can be a huge endeavor, and making changes on the fly can be costly, but you can run the risk of making the film feel too busy, bloated, and or unfocused. Unfortunately, a lot of the problems with Big Fish & Begonia is that there is too much going on. Much of the film is Chun’s relationship with Kun, and her learning about life, death, sacrifice, and the consequences to certain actions, but they shove in a lot of characters, and a lot of time spent with Chun over vast landscapes. I’ll admit, many of the logical issues I keep questioning throughout my time watching the film are probably more of a cultural thing, and how the film wants to be more of a fairy tale. However, how far can you go with those kinds of defenses until they become too distracting? How much homework does one need to do on Chinese culture to fully understand the magical logic used in the film? It shouldn’t turn into a homework project to fully get what’s going on, and who everyone is. I don’t mind learning about the culture, but the film should be explaining to me visually what’s going on. For example, there is this rat woman who is an obvious threat, but you don’t get why she wants to go to the human world, and you don’t see her again after a certain period of time. I mean, yes, you can tell by her design and the way she interacts with everyone, that she is a threat, but why? I also get that having Kun stay in their world brings upon a lot of damage and danger, but why? Why does having a human spirit cause such chaos? The story also goes at a rather fast pace. It’s not a truly horrible thing, but I think the film’s atmosphere and emotional investment would have been stronger if they let some time pass between certain moments. While Studio MiR, the same studio behind Avatar: The Last Airbender and Netflix’s Voltron series, has some breathtaking animation done for Big Fish & Begonia, its use of CGI is definitely distracting. It’s not as bad as, say, Blue Submarine No. 6, but you can always tell when it’s CGI. It becomes more distracting when you see the giant flying whales that look like something out of that Fantasia 2000 short.

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With all that said, Big Fish & Begonia has great elements in its overall package. Like I said above, the animation is gorgeous. The backgrounds are awe inspiring, the designs are whimsical, the movements are fluid, and it’s an incredible visual feast for the eyes. You can tell there was a heavy dose of passion throughout this entire film’s visual presentation. It’s an incredible treat for the eyes that you need to see on the biggest screen you can. I even regret not seeing this one when it came out in my neck of the woods! As for the dub, I have seen both the original with subtitles, and the dub that Funimation helped out with. I think the cast is pretty stellar that includes actors such as Stephanie Sheh, Johnny Yong Bosch, Todd Haberkorn, JB Blanc, Cindy Robinson, Yuri Lowenthal, Greg Chun, Kate Higgins, Kyle Hebert, Erika Ishii, and Cam Clarke. The music by Kiyoshi Yoshida is full of that Chinese flair. It’s fantastical, mystical, and epic when needed. You might have heard of his name and his music if you have seen The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, where he did the soundtrack for that film. Another strong element is the relationship between Chun, Kun, and Chun’s friend Qui, dubbed by Johnny Yong Bosch. Most of the time you see Chun and Kun together is done with very little dialogue. The visuals tell the story, which, you know, is sort of important in a visual medium like animation.

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Big Fish & Begonia might be a bit of a mess, but it’s an important film for China and the Chinese animation scene. If you watch the trailers or clips, and you think you would like this film, I definitely recommend checking it out. It’s an impressive start, and I hope that means that other 2D animated projects that are going on over in China, can start raising the bar as time goes on. Well, after this, I definitely need something a bit zanier, a bit more focused, and maybe something that can make the night go on forever. Next time, we are going to check out Masaaki Yuasa’s other hit film, The Night is Short, Walk on Girl. Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed the review, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Go See It!

 

The Other Side of Animation 105: The Empire of Corpses Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

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I have come to realize that I may have played my winning hand too early with picking out a “scary” or “horror”-themed animated film to review last year with Extraordinary Tales. It made me realize that there are not many dark or scary animated films. A lot of Halloween-themed specials are usually family friendly, and not really all that scary. It’s a shame, since animation breaks those chains that hold back horror in live-action movies, because you can do what you want with no limitations. That’s why I had to ask around a bit to see what I could review that was creepy or unsettling and not entirely made for a family audience. This is where The Empire of Corpses comes into play. This is part of a trilogy of films based on stories by late author Project Itoh or as he is known as, Satoshi Ito. It was followed up by Harmony and Genocidal Organ. It got a lot of hype behind it, because it was being animated by Wit Studio, the animation studio behind Attack on Titan. It was directed by Ryoutarou Makihara, and was brought over by Funimation. Once it was seen by more of the world, I didn’t really hear anyone talk about it. I think it’s honestly a cool little product, and that’s why I’m reviewing it here. Let’s get started.

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The film takes place in an alternate 19th century. In this world, back in the 18th century, England scientist Victor Frankenstein found a way to bring back dead corpses, and make them live again. After some shenanigans with the doctor ending up dead, and his one true prototype going missing, the technology he used called Necroware is now used in mass production, where the Government is using dead bodies and making them grunts, soldiers, workers, and so on. Jump to current day, and the technology has spread across the entire world. So, enter our lead, a promising Necroware engineer named John Watson, voiced by Jason Liebrecht. He has been working under the radar to bring his friend Friday, voiced by Todd Haberkorn, back to life after his passing. The good news is that Watson brings his friend Friday back to life! The bad news is that due to the current technology, Friday can’t talk or really do much besides a few simple actions. Oh, and I guess getting caught and almost getting a bullet through Watson’s head by the England Government is bad as well. Watson is then sent on a journey to find this book that had all of Frankenstein’s notes and blue prints on reanimating corpses. Along the way he meets his and Friday’s bodyguard Captain Frederick Gustavus Burnaby, voiced by J. Michael Tatum, a Russian guide named Nikolai Krasotkin, voiced by Micah Solusod, a Russian corpse engineer voiced by Mike McFarland, and a mysterious woman named Hadaly Lilith, voiced by Morgan Garrett. Together they try to find this book, and maybe find The One, voiced by R. Bruce Elliott.

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So, what is good about this film? Well, I love the idea. While not scream yourself silly scary, the idea of what the entire plot is based around is scary. I mean, people are able to bring back dead people to use for mindless tasks, and sending them to war, while the rich get fat and pampered. It gets even more disturbing when you realize that they can make zombies for different purposes, and give them back intelligence to a degree. I feel like there should, or would, be some kind of moral dilemma with this technology. I also enjoyed the chemistry between Watson and Friday. You really wanted to see Watson obtain his goal, and bring Friday back to 100% living. I also enjoyed their bodyguard, who was simply a fun character to watch fight, act snarky, and bring a good energy to the group of protagonists.

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Since this was animated by the studio that did Attack on Titan, Wit Studio, you can tell that you are going to get some high-grade animation. Everything moves fluidly, and the color pallet has a good mixture of drab colors and a vibrant color scheme when needed.  The action flows well with the movements, and they get really creative with the zombie types. I know some people complain that when you give zombies more to do than just stumble around, it makes them less interesting, but I think it helps the movie. You see different types of zombies, like the regular zombies, suicide bomb zombies, zombies that wear heavy armor and know how to fight, and you get the idea. It helps make the action more interesting, and kept me engaged when our merry group of heroes was under attack. The voice acting was pretty solid. I think some of the voice actors trying British or Russian voices are distracting, but everyone puts in a good performance.

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If I had to complain about something with the film, I think it would be the pacing. Now, as a movie, it’s a fun action romp with an interesting setting. On the other hand, I constantly felt this would have been better as a miniseries. Even at two hours, the pacing of the story feels weird. Like, I was really getting into the Russian guide and his comradery with our lead, the bodyguard, and Friday, but he then stops being in the film before the halfway point. It’s shocking what happens, but still. They also introduce elements to certain characters, and the twist feels forced. Not that they weren’t building up the twist in some way, but since the film is too long for its own good, I lost interest a couple of times, and had to take a break  of watching the film before getting back on the saddle. The final climax is intense, but so much goes on at once with the lead and the main villain, that it’s overload. I think everything would have been better if they made this a four to six episode miniseries, so they could have time to flesh out everything. It loses its steam by the end of the first hour, and that’s a real shame. You have a cool world, but not the best execution or intrigue of said world.

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In the end, The Empire of Corpses was a solid movie. I had fun watching it, and I am glad I watched it, but I don’t know if I would watch it again. I would recommend seeing if you can rent it, or see if a friend has it and watch it with them. When I’m usually on the fence about a film, a rental or free viewing helps me not waste $20+ buying a copy of the film. If you like zombie films, anime, or anime with zombies, then you will probably enjoy this movie. It might go off the rails at times, but for a non-family-friendly “spooky” animated feature, I think I did a good job finding this film. Well, I have had my fill of spooky ghosts, ghouls, and anime tropes, so how about we play a little catch-up with the year with Loving Vincent. Thanks for reading, I hope you all enjoyed the review, and I will see you next time!

Rating: Rent It!

The Other Side of Animation 101: In This Corner of the World Review

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(If you like what you see, you can go to camseyeview.biz to see more of my work on video game reviews, editorials, lists, Kickstarters, developer interviews, and review/talk about animated films. If you would like, consider contributing to my Patreon at patreon.com. It would help support my work, and keeps the website up. Thanks for checking out my work, and I hope you like this review!)

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With Hayao Miyazaki coming back for one more film, and a huge slew of teen/young adult-focused animated dramas coming out of Japan, Japanese animation is a big deal. There are a few directors that everyone should be following or watching their work. You have, of course, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, but you also have Mamoru Hosoda, Kenji Kamiyama, Hiroyuki Okiura, Masaaki Yuasa, and of course, Makoto Shinkai. There are definitely others that should be on your radar, but I’m going to be talking about one director today, Sunao Katabuchi. His contributions to the anime/animation scene can be considered not as big as some of the others I listed above, but he has left his print on certain products, like the popular Black Lagoon series, the award-winning Mai Mai Miracle, Princess Arete, and a film that is the focus of today’s review, In This Corner of the World. This animated film, based on a manga, was released last year to critical and wide-spread acclaim, bringing home multiple awards, and winning the Jury Prize at the 2017 Annecy Film Festival. It was then picked up and distributed over here in the states by Shout! Factory and Funimation. So, how is it? Well, let’s dive in.

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The story follows our female lead, Suzu, voiced by Laura Post, an innocent-minded individual who loves painting/art while living in her town of Eba. We follow her when she is a child through the rough times of marriage with her husband Shusaku, voiced by Todd Haberkorn, family problems on both sides, and of course, World War II. Can she find a way to get through this horrific couple of years? What will happen between her, her husband, and her two families?

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So, I know my plot summary sounded a bit half-baked, but I would consider this film to be closer to a Japanese-animated film from last year, Miss Hokusai. I compare In This Corner of the World to Miss Hokusai, because the story of In This Corner of the World is less structured, and is more about smaller sub-stories of Suzu and her life in Japan during the war. The film’s main theme is about resilience during such rough times. It’s different than other Japanese World War II films, like Grave of the Fireflies, where it was all about the consequence of pride battling against coming to terms with the times. Throughout In This Corner of the World, Suzu is constantly challenged with different obstacles, like how to keep meals going when shortages happen, dealing with the interactions with her in-laws, and the occasional bombing. You might see the lush and soft watercolor art style and shorter designs as this film is being something more innocent and romantic. Yeah, don’t be caught off-guard by the art style. This film has some incredibly savage moments of pure raw emotion. They do not hide the fact that this film takes place in a very specific part of Japan. The film actually has a very haunting note to it, because from time to time, they will show off the date of the month and year, and if you know anything about history, you know sooner or later, something is going to drop. The film will not leave these characters untouched or consequence-free by the war, and just because it looks more family-friendly, doesn’t mean you should ignore the fact that this is a war movie. The film does a mostly good job at pacing out the tougher and more loving moments. It’s not just depressing moment after depressing moment. Not to say that a film about war can’t be like that, since, well, it is war, but In This Corner of the World is meant to be more optimistic and hopeful in terms of its goal, and I think it succeeds. You care about the characters, and you want them to be okay. It makes it all the more emotional when something bad happens.

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The animation is beautiful. I love that they went with a more watercolor style that really makes this film stand out along with the character designs. In an age where a lot of anime is becoming more and more homogenous with its designs, it’s nice to see a film take a risk and look different. I don’t even find the designs to be distracting, due to the fact that you will see some horrific stuff happen. The film even takes some moments to be artsy, and it doesn’t come off as pretentious or trying too hard to be more. In terms of the dub of this film, I thought it was pretty good. The crew of Laura Post, Todd Haberkorn, Barbara Goodson, Kirk Thornton, and Kira Buckland did a good job capturing the emotion and performance of the characters.

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If I had to complain about something about the film, there are some small gripes. There was one scene where I feel like the dub team couldn’t find a way to get around the fact that a character is saying “I can recognize your accent is different, and not from here” when everyone is speaking English, but it’s still distracting. I also feel like there are some moments where the story has characters for very specific reasons. It’s a Miss Hokusai situation, so you probably know what I’m talking about. While I do love the overall film, sometimes, the really dramatic moments feel a bit odd in terms of pacing. Right before the film ends, they have another bomb drop, and show a little girl walking with her mother who was pretty much dead, and it felt odd because it came right after a very touching and emotional scene between Suzu and her husband. It ends on a good note, but it felt “off” to me.

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For now, In This Corner of the World is my favorite animated film of 2017. It’s touching, beautiful, wonderfully animated, emotionally gripping, and a really fantastic film. Since there is so much concern about how the Best Animated Feature will pan out, I think it’s time for the smaller releases to get some recognition, since let’s be real, the only big animated film to win this year will be Coco. If you love animated films that are more complex than what you get with most big-budget animated films, then please find a way to watch In This Corner of the World or buy it when it comes out on DVD. It’s one of my favorites of the year, in a year with some amazing small-scale animated films. Well, it’s been two years since I have started reviewing animated films. It’s time to look at something special. I think I’ll keep what it might be a secret. Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed the article, and I will see you all next time!

Rating: Criterion/Essentials