Review by Sean Boelman
Xiaopeng Tian’s animated fantasy adventure Deep Sea has taken the festival circuit by storm, with strong showings at Berlinale, Tribeca, and Annecy — among others. Although Deep Sea occasionally suffers from feeling a bit uninventive in a narrative sense, its visuals are stunning and certainly among the year’s best.
The film follows a young girl who finds herself on a fantastic journey to an underwater restaurant on the submerged wreckage of a once-glorious vessel, where she befriends the waitstaff along with the eccentric chef with a hidden heart of gold. If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because it’s eerily similar to the story of the Miyazaki classic Spirited Away.
The formulaic nature of the film works both for and against it. Xiaopeng is able to capture much of the same folklore-esque magic that made Miyazaki’s film work so well, but the fact that it follows the formula so closely does cause the film to lose interest every once in a while. Still, with a 100ish minute runtime before credits, the visuals and atmosphere do enough heavy lifting to keep the viewer enthralled.
Xiaopeng attempts to do a lot with the film’s themes, some of which work really well while others don’t. The portions of the film exploring the protagonist’s grief over her long lost mother feel somewhat underdeveloped. However, it’s understandable why they are included — as they are essential for the greater message of survival that is much more poignant.
Audiences will obviously immediately resonate with the protagonist, whose arc is undeniably moving. The supporting characters don’t fare as well because they’re all rather archetypal — if they even have arcs at all. The chef character has the most development of any of the supporting characters, but even his growth is predictable and derivative.
The character design in the film is pretty fascinating because it’s very mixed in style. It’s a combination of photorealistic animation for the human characters with a more cutesy style for the anthropomorphic characters. The level of emotion they get out of some of the characters, including one amorphous blob, is often stunning.
However, the part of the animation that is most impressive is the backgrounds, which are lusciously animated in the style of classical Chinese brush art. They’re gorgeous to look at, allowing the film to be thoroughly immersive, even when the world-building of the narrative isn’t as rich as one would hope.
Deep Sea is hardly the most original animated film in a narrative sense, but the gorgeous animation and its ability to effectively hit its emotional beats make it worth watching. Xiaopeng Tian is certainly a talent to watch in the international animation space.
Deep Sea screens at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, which runs June 7-18 in NYC and June 19 through July 2 online.