‘Deep Sea’ Review: Gorgeous Animated Film Fights Through Stormy Waters


The Big Picture

  • Deep Sea is a stunning animated film that offers a unique visual experience through its innovative technique of blending 3D images with ink paintings.
  • The film takes audiences on a journey into a vast and mesmerizing undersea world, reminiscent of films like Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle.
  • While Deep Sea may have some narrative flaws and repetitions, its breathtaking animation and climactic sequence make it a visually captivating film that shouldn’t be overlooked.

When it comes to animation, 2023 has been a year of quite high highs and rather low lows. There have been bold works that experiment with form and style in vibrant ways just as there have been sweet yet largely shallow experiences that feel like they’re only scratching the surface of their potential. Nestled right in the middle of this is Deep Sea, a stunning animated feature with plenty of spark that still feels like it is often treading water. After opening in China back in January and playing the festival circuit, the latest from writer-director Xiaopeng Tian (Monkey King: Hero Is Back) is now getting a limited theatrical release in the U.S. where it feels like one of those films that could, unfortunately, be far too easily slept on.

A poster for Deep Sea.

Deep Sea

Shenxiu was abandoned by her mother when she was a child. On a family cruise, Shenxiu falls into the sea and breaks into a mysterious restaurant under the ocean. There she meets the wildly experimental chef Nanhe and embarks on a journey to meet her mother again, in a kaleidoscopic, dreamlike world of swirling color and cascading water.

Release Date
November 24, 2023

112 minutes

Main Genre

This would be a mistake as the film, while it plays around with a familiar narrative, is a frequently breathtaking experience. Making use of a unique technique that melds 3D images with what looks like ink paintings, it is the type of trip that feels like it is doing something entirely different than what you’ve seen before in animation. Not all of it works, with the design of a certain central character’s rather large mouth feeling a bit off at key moments, but it is a film that is impossible to dismiss based on its sheer creative spirit alone. The experience is a rush of colors at its best when it dives headfirst into a more unrestrained vision to leave us adrift in its beauty. It feels thrillingly alive even with its rough edges as it immerses us in a world of both dreams and nightmares.

What Is ‘Deep Sea’ About?

This all begins with the young Shenxiu (Wang Tingwen) who is going through a bit of a tough time in her life. We first observe her being nearly consumed by a monstrous force of darkness before awakening from this nightmare into a reality that is not much better. Her parents have gotten divorced and this has left a sense of loneliness in her life that she can’t shake. She is now being dragged along on a cruise with her father (Teng Kuixing), stepmother (Yang Ting), and newborn brother (Dong Yi) which soon goes awry. Specifically, Shenxiu ends up going overboard where she discovers a vast world that is more exciting yet also more dangerous than the one she left behind. Navigating this is the Deep Sea Restaurant, a chaotic yet charming sub overseen by the magical head chef Nanhe (Su Xin) whom Shenxiu begins to form a complicated relationship with while going in search of her mother. As we soon discover, this journey that is both literal and metaphorical will not be such an easy one.

For large stretches of Deep Sea, it is impossible not to think of Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle with their similar narratives about a young girl being taken into a magic world with the perils she discovers therein. Of course, to flatten each into just their premises would do a disservice to all of them and their many differences. In Deep Sea, there is a greater emphasis on the spectacle of it all and the vastness of the world we are taken into. There are extended sequences that dance and move throughout the ship that are electrifying even if the narrative can start to feel a bit empty. Whereas the other aforementioned films had a greater grace, this one is all about hurling us into the beauty and terror of its undersea world.

While this works enough to hold together, there are still moments where it feels like it is losing a handle on its thematic and visual interests. Repetition makes the journey of Shenxiu into something perilously close to superficially punishing, with Nanhe even saying at one point that there is much that will “prey on gloomy little girls like you” to hammer home once more how much she is being put through the wringer. The film attempts to temper this with silly montages, but some of this can also feel taunting in off-kilter ways. While there is nothing inherently wrong with a story about a child being tormented for nearly two hours, as many a fairy tale has set out to do, there is often a sense that Deep Sea is without the necessary balance to instill it all with greater resonance.

‘Deep Sea’ Remains Beautiful To Behold

A still from Deep Sea.
Image via Forissimo Films

As this all builds and builds, most of the hangups it accumulated along the journey get washed away by the beauty of the animation. There is a rather magnificent climactic sequence that goes for broke, bringing us right up to the edge of death while also creating its most effective emotional beats when it counts. While it is not going to be among the very best of 2023 when it comes to its story, the craft that went into its presentation is unlike anything you’ll see this year or any other. It manages to burst through the surface of its frequently stormy narrative waters and grab hold of your heart just as it does your eyes.

Rating: B-

Deep Sea is now in limited theaters in the U.S. Click here for showtimes near you.

Las Vegas News Magazine

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