‘White Snake’ Film Review: Epic Saga Heralds New Wave of Chinese Animation

Drawing from folk legend, directors Amp Wong and Ji Zhao have created a finely cut and polished gem of CG animation

Last Updated: November 14, 2019 @ 2:24 PM

Computer-generated animation produced outside of high-budgeted U.S. studios has deteriorated into a minefield of technique plagued with soulless, talking-animal cash grabs. Few are the international CG features that boast both technical proficiency and idiosyncratic personality; Light Chaser Animation’s imperfectly phenomenal “White Snake,” from directing duo Amp Wong and Ji Zhao, slithers onto the screen like a welcomed rarity.

Heralded as the origin story of the shape-shifting entities popularized by one of China’s Four Great Folktales, “The Legend of the White Snake,” this quasi-prequel opens with Blanca (voiced by Stephanie Sheh) — a statuesque warrior and part of a race of snake demons who’ve been victimized by mankind for centuries — being tasked with murdering a perverse General in the human world. A hairpin made of precious jade holds her magical powers.

Richly textured backgrounds digitally painted in bold colors — chiefly the autumn trees shedding red leaves throughout the kingdom — exemplify some of the most noteworthy features well-executed 3D animation can provide.

Such lush scenery, including bodies of water and a frozen realm illuminated with shiny constellations, splendidly house the movie’s multiple thrilling wuxia battles, in which only humanoid creatures partake initially before massive fanged monsters take over the aerial fighting. Zhao’s background as an assistant editor in films heavy with combat choreography, such as “The Grandmaster” and 2010’s remake of “The Karate Kid,” explains the assemblage and pacing of these type of gravity-defying confrontations in “White Snake.”

Crossing over from her heavenly lair into rural China, Blanca is rendered amnesiac after failing to carry out her mission. Her plight, that of a supernatural being who’s forgotten who she is, and her subsequent romance with a mortal, are reminiscent of Ghibli’s “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” but with lesser philosophical maturity to the writing (but higher, action-packed stakes).

Part of a village cursed with the chore of capturing serpents for the General to fuel his search of immortality via the occult, Xuan (Paul Yen), an inept young man whose snake-catching aptitude is next to nonexistent, jumpstarts an epic love affair with Blanca after rescuing her from drowning. Pleasantly surprised with his lack of prejudice against demons like her, Blanca warms up to her new friend. Later, a musical moment with Xuan singing as the pair sails through a dazzling tunnel mirrors “A Whole New World” from “Aladdin” in atmosphere and sentiment.

Comic relief paws through the earnest mystical plot, courtesy of Xuan’s neurotic dog Dudou (voiced by He Zhang once Blanca grants him the ability to speak). The squeamish canine, a furry “bro,” engages in one of the most off-kilter instances in the animated saga when he worries about whether his master’s penis has been removed in exchange for a chance at saving Blanca. Similarly unexpected, considering the overall tone of the picture, is an implied erotic sequence between the lovers to announce they’ve consummated their relationship.

As far as subject matter goes, “White Snake” advocates mostly for passion that can endure not only the advances of demonic forces but also death itself. It’s a classically tragic tale of two star-crossed individuals whose love cannot be because they belong to warring clans. Here, however, it’s not class or race that divides them, but the otherworldly hierarchy that prohibits them from being together. Still, Xuan proves willing to transgress the status quo. In truth, the derivative concept deals in archetypes and truisms, likely due to the material that inspired it, but pushes visually where it falters in originality.

Slick character design, perhaps too afraid of blemishes and imperfections, matches the luminescent settings for a striking dreamlike aesthetic. Seeing Blanca transformed into a majestic giant white python soaring through the sky late in the film prompts one to fully appreciate the breadth of the animator’s labor, not only in its imposing proportions but its movements as well. Speaking solely of artistry, “White Snake” glistens as a finely cut and polished CG gem.

Precisely because of how ravishingly constructed some of the set pieces turned out, it’s more of shame to see the storytelling’s structural lack of cohesiveness and subplot saturation clutter the view. Clarity on the mechanics of how Blanca’s sorcery operates, the regulations on how a demon loses its soul, and the motivations behind the feuds among factions of demons is missing. Peripheral characters fall into two groups: those like Blanca’s sister Verta (Vivian Lu) and the naughty two-faced Foxy Boss (Xiaopu Zheng) who throw in the occasional zinger or prompt certain situations, and fillers like the two maniacal villains.

Though narratively muddled, what Wong and Zhao have accomplished assertively departs from the mass-produced juvenile animated content dominating their country’s box office and amplifies China’s burgeoning response to the solemn whimsicality of Miyazaki alongside other recent titles like “Big Fish & Begonia.” The financial triumph of “White Snake” at home bodes well for Chinese artists eager to lead the medium into more unique pastures and definitely counts as a positive for animation fans tired of disposable entertainment.

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