DEEP SEA (Tribeca 2023) Review by Leslie Combemale

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CG artist and animation director Tian Xiaopeng spent seven years on Deep Sea, the follow up to his first animated feature Monkey King: Hero is Back, which in 2015 shattered box office records in China. Almost 1500 people worked to create this film, which Xiaopeng meant for audiences to experience like a dream. He wanted to give the 3D animated Deep Sea traditional Chinese aesthetics, and was particularly inspired by the look of Chinese ink painting. He actually invented new techniques to mimic the ink painting art style. He definitely achieved his aim. Visually, the film is nothing short of exquisite.

The story is based around a little girl named Shenxiu (voiced by Tingwen Wang), who is unhappily living with her father, stepmother, and their new child, after having been abandoned by her mother post-divorce. She goes on a family cruise only to be steadfastly ignored by her parents in favor of their new child. She wanders out onto the deck during a violent storm, and is tossed overboard, entering a fantastical, kaleidoscopic world under the waves. There she discovers an undersea restaurant, and its flamboyant, frenetic chef, Nanhe (Xin Su), who is attempting to placate a demanding group of anthropomorphic sea creatures there to experience Nanhe’s fine dining.

Though the design and color utilized in Deep Sea is enough to keep viewers fascinated, there’s way more than meets the eye to this feature. The themes of loss and loneliness play a major role in the story, with the sea, the restaurant, and all the various characters Shenxiu encounters all symbolic stand-ins for elements in her real life. It’s Alice in Wonderland underwater, if Alice was having a lucid dream, and desperately trying to turn a nightmare into something more palatable.

Deep Sea is decidedly not for those inclined towards depression. To say that the film doesn’t have a Disney ending would be a vast understatement, and parents should consider seeing the film before they show it to younger children. The plot is fairly loose and very non-linear, and as a result, that makes the experience of watching the movie feel all the more like a dream. I’m not sure the tonal shifts work as well as they could, and the shifts often feel disjointed, though to be fair, this layered, complicated story is a challenging concept for an animated feature.

It’s best to see Deep Sea on the big screen, where audiences can let it wash over them (as it were), and let it take them wherever it may, which will depend on individual perspective. It should be seen however, regardless of its faults, for the spectacular colors and dreamy undersea visuals painstakingly created by the director and his crew.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website,, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.