A young girl named Shenxiu relishes the memory of being a whole, happy family with her parents in Deep Sea. When she was even younger, Shenxiu’s mother left her and her father unexpectedly. Now Shenxiu has a new stepmother and a little half-brother named Sweet Pea, who is about to go to kindergarten and whom her father constantly prioritizes.
Deep Sea is writer and director Tian Xiaopeng’s second credited film after 2015’s Monkey King: Hero is Back. Though there is a connection between the director’s cinematic projects (Sun Wukong from Hero is Back has a brief cameo in the end credits), the two films are vastly different.
While the story is decent, Hero is Back has that direct to video quality of animation. Copies of the film can be found at Dollar Tree these days.
Visually, as a CGI animated fantasy film, Deep Sea is unlike anything you’ve seen before. The animation utilizes every color imaginable with bright and vibrant underwater sequences that are absolutely breathtaking.
These colors are constantly swirling, while looking like granulated watercolor paintings with a variety of fish — particularly betta fish and goldfish — only adding more stunning color as they swim through. Other sequences that resemble the sun setting or rising look like stained glass.
Many of the underwater sequences look like an animated version of Van Gogh’s The Starry Night painting. People and animals are realistically animated; skin has that genuine shine while water looks like it was ripped out of a photograph. Tian Xiaopeng actually spent seven years developing a visual style for Deep Sea that is based on Chinese painting. The 3D particle effect utilized in the film is meant to be dreamlike.
You’ll likely be able to relate to Deep Sea more if your parents ever separated or went through a divorce. Shenxiu is stuck in the middle of a bad marriage — one that eventually becomes a new marriage that seemingly doesn’t have room for her. She seems lost, even though it’s been some years since her mother left. While she probably blames herself, finding her mom and being with her is Shenxiu’s one motivation.
The film reveals that Shenxiu has never let go of reuniting with her mother. While she texts her often, her estranged mother always seems too busy to talk. During a cruise trip with her father’s new family, Shenxiu falls overboard as a massive storm hits the ship.
When she wakes up, Shenxiu finds herself at the foot of a restaurant submarine named ‘Deep Sea,’ which is operated and owned by a rubbery, sea-parting performer named Nanhe — also known as the godfather of gourmet.
Nanhe is extremely lanky and always puts on a show in an effort to please his guests. He has an oversized mouth and his face becomes clown-like when he gets angry. He says he has superpowers because he’s able to part the sea.
Shenxiu is also met by a black blob known as a ‘Hyjinx,’ who is humming a song Shenxiu’s mother sang to her when she was little. Because of this, she believes the Hyjinx knows where her mother is, prompting the girl to follow it.
The Deep Sea’s customer base and staff are mostly a mix of walruses, otters, and fish. Unfortunately, the restaurant is on the verge of bankruptcy and they believe a dough drop soup made with the Hyjinx as the main ingredient could save it.
It turns out, however, that Hyjinx is actually a black ghost; a manifestation of Shenxiu’s fears. It’s small and cute when it’s first introduced, as it is meant to represent Shenxiu’s mother early on. Later, when Shenxiu is afraid, the now-frightening Hyjinx becomes linked to Nanhe.
In the film, the Deep Sea restaurant and Shenxiu are running away from an entity referred to as the ‘Red Phantom,’ and it seems like it only wants to wrap itself around whoever it comes across. But there’s a reason for that.
The Red Phantom is actually based on the red hoodie that Shenxiu’s mother left behind, which the film’s protagonist now wears as a mean to protect herself and hide away from the world. It is later revealed that the Red Phantom isn’t a real threat as it really only wants to hug Shenxiu.
With a story and an ending you can guess as soon as Shenxiu falls overboard, Deep Sea typically goes in the direction you’re probably expecting it to. But the way everything comes together and how each piece is revealed is masterfully executed, especially since you know the girl is mostly blinded by getting to her mother.
While the concept is simple, some of the film’s most poignant and innovate moments are in its emotionally devastating finale; the last scene is an absolute tearjerker.
With heavy influences from Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, Deep Sea is the best animated film of the year that most won’t see or even know about. Its extraordinary animation sets it apart from everything else out there because it feels like a brilliant, one-of-a-kind plunge into pure imaginative whimsy.
- Beautiful animation that is unique to the film.
- An emotionally powerful ending.
- You fall in love with each character.
- Its story is a bit on the predictable side.
- Ghibli homage is borderline criminal.