Xiaopeng Tian’s stylish Deep Sea (Shen Hai) tends to struggle focusing on its main storyline, but that doesn’t stop it from being a stunning animated feature.
“Animation is cinema,” is one of the latest film movements pushed by cinephiles on social media. Guillermo del Toro is one of the key figures in such endeavors, arguing animation isn’t a genre but a storytelling medium during the promotional campaign of his 2022 Pinocchio movie. Between that film and Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, the support for animation is very strong today. Deep Sea (Shen Hai) is just the latest to test that concept.
Deep Sea follows Shenxiu (Tingwen Wang, Sniper), a little girl who’s thrust to the bottom of the sea in a desperate attempt to connect with her absent mother. Shenxiu encounters colorful sea creatures that help her along the way in her journey, including Nanhe (Xin Su, The Victims) who quickly becomes her closest parental figure in this adventure.
With Deep Sea, writer and director Xiaopeng Tian contrasts the movie’s cheerful watercolor palette and 3D animation style with complex themes of loss, sacrifice, hope, and depression. Deep Sea wastes no time to humanize Shenxiu, as we see her dealing with the fact that her family is no longer united. Whenever she tries to reach out to her mother she’s treated with coldness and conversation-ending texts, while her dad enjoys his new life with his new wife and child.
Although not everyone who will be watching the film has lived through split households due to divorce, it is a concept we’re very familiar with. Shenxiu’s sense of loss is gripping in a very personal way that only a child could process in such a moment. It also helps that characters around Shenxiu come across as distant and ignorant of her severe depression. Tian’s writing and his animators do an amazing job at setting the beginning of Shenxiu’s journey with her dad and his family on a cruise during a massive storm. Visually, it is a clever idea to represent Shenxiu’s isolation through people circling our protagonist being happy in the middle of a storm, symbolizing Shenxiu’s profound sadness.
One of the many wonders of animation is how it can unlock endless possibilities for storytelling techniques and fresh artistic expression. To say the film is gorgeous would quite honestly be underselling what Deep Sea does with its visuals. We’ve seen 3D animation done well from giants like Pixar, or the greatly creative style of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Not only does Deep Sea attempt to combine both 3D animation with life-life watercolor painting style, but it succeeds at doing so. Tian smartly chooses to demonstrate Shenxiu’s world as hopeless and gray, then treats us to a magical and colorful new world when we travel under the sea.
The backgrounds are incredibly detailed, characters are insanely expressive, making the whole thing come to life. Probably the one character that benefits the most from Deep Sea’s art direction is Nanhe. He demands so much exaggerated movement in order to really convey his personality, and the animation goes out of its way to really showcase what kind of person he was before and after meeting Shenxiu.
Speaking of Nanhe and his crew of outcasts, though they’re entertaining to watch and play a pivotal role in helping Shenxiu overcome her grief, this is where the movie sort of loses focus. The film makes it seem as if we’re about to embark on an epic journey of our lead reconnecting with her mysterious mother, but that moment never really comes. At least not in the way you’d expect. Instead, Shenxiu gets carried away helping Nanhe make his underwater restaurant a success and making friends with other sea creatures. From a character perspective, it’s a nice way for Shenxiu to see there is more to life than her parents’ broken relationship. Almost as if the movie is trying to distract us from focusing back on the original concept of her journey, just as Shenxiu spends moments forgetting as well.
Unfortunately, it takes a while for Deep Sea to get back to a place where it can emotionally engage you. You’re not bored while we get to that point, and we’re at least treated to some stellar set pieces. But at some moment the fun atmosphere the film creates can be a bit too much. The movie can get very loud until everything becomes overwhelming and you begin to wait until things slow down again.
Overall, Deep Sea makes it hard for any other production being shown at Tribeca this year – animated or otherwise – to leave much of an impression visually. It’s a beautiful movie to look at where you can pause it at any given time and you’ll see pictures that seem like they were taken straight out of a painting. It loses momentum, but its ending is emotionally charged and packs a lot of heart.
Deep Sea premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 9, 2023.