Deep Sea

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Deep Sea came as a genuine surprise, not that I know much about the state of Chinese animation in 2024, or any other year. But what a magical, remarkable, imaginative, technically inventive film this is.

The story is pretty much Studio Ghibli – Shenxiu, a young girl whose mother has walked out and whose father has remarried and lost interest in her, falls over the rail of the ship her family are on and is instantly transported to a phantasmagorical undersea world.

Here she ends up in a busy restaurant kitchen on board a cranky submarine powered by pedalling walruses and is taken under the wing of Nan He, an avant-garde chef (his estimation of himself – his co-workers think he sucks).

From here a quest movie – the search for a mythical creature called the Hyjinx (spellings may vary), a kind of black furry shapeshifting octopus, all the while avoiding fabled nasty the Red Phantom, alongside Shenxiu’s determination to find her missing mother, who she is convinced is somewhere in this watery realm.

Parentless children having adventures with eccentric adults is stranger-danger stuff in the real world, but Ghibli managed to build an empire on it so writer director Tian Xiaopeng is in good company. Before heading too far with the Ghibli comparisons it must be said that Tian isn’t out to make a knock-off here, though the various talking anthropomorphised animals and the steampunk submarine might suggest we’re in for something like Spirited Away Slight Return.

Instead that’s just a canvas for Tian’s artistic and technical skills as a director of animation. The colours are definitely and possibly deliberately un-Ghibli – bright, contrasting hues, red against green, blue against yellow – and the style of animation is vivid, fluid, busy, almost psychedelic, with a level of energy that’s massive and chaotic. Clearly, this is aimed at kids, who can take more of this sort of punishment than adults.

A psychedelic tangle with  the Red Phantom
A psychedelic tangle with the Red Phantom

By turns realistic, impressionistic, dreamlike and hard-edged, it’s also the first animated film I’ve ever seen where everyone in it stops for a moment to watch… an animated film (something hand-drawn and 2D, whereas this is definitely CG and 3D).

There is humour at the expense of Nan He, who is a bit of a loser, cuteness thanks to walruses dressed as sailors and otters with bandaged heads, plus jeopardy when the Red Phantom shows up, a miasmatic presence it’s impossible to vanquish. Tian appears to be aiming to deliver something for everyone, but the overall tone is dreamlike switchbacking into the nightmarish, which might suggest where the plot is actually heading.

When it gets there Tian builds to two climaxes, one that’s action-packed and with the film’s most layered and complex animation yet. The other emotional, where he conjures powerful feelings sensitively as the truth about Shenxiu and her mother is finally worked through.

It’s the best bit of the film and delivers a protracted sequence likely to have fingernails compressed into palms.

Tian has said he wanted to marry modern CG with more traditional Chinese ink painting, though the other unmentioned influence is the multiplicity of multiverse movies that have been coming our way in recent years – Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse to Everything Everywhere All at Once to Doctor Strange to Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, and so on. All, in various ways, are here.

It’s Tian’s second film, after Monkey King: Hero Is Back, the highest-grossing animated movie in China’s history when it was released in 2015. Who outside that country has seen it? Who’ll see Tian’s next film? Everyone, I’m guessing.

Deep Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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