For all the dominance that China has asserted on the movie industry in recent years, the country has not yet been able to gain a foothold in the animation market. There have been a few Hollywood productions co-financed or co-produced by Chinese studios, but no original films from China have yet to make a mark on outside of the country’s borders. And considering China’s rich cultural history and mythology — which has frequently been cribbed by Western animators — it seems like a long time coming.
White Snake, the second feature film from Beijing-based CG animation studio Light Chaser Animation, bears all of this baggage on its back and delivers a breathlessly imaginative and visually stunning animated film that is easily one of the most beautiful animated films this year. But for all its visual splendor, the story itself feels like an afterthought, too heavily inspired by the Disney films that it emulates.
Amp Wong and Zhao Ji direct White Snake, which acts as a prequel to the well-known traditional Chinese fable Legend of the White Snake In the original folk tale — considered one of “China’s Four Great Folktales” — a white snake spirit falls in love with a human man, who is unaware that his beautiful wife is an immortal demon. Their happy marriage is interrupted by a monk who tricks the man into giving his wife wine that reveals her true form, but their love overcomes the vengeful monk’s actions. White Snake hones in on the epic love story between the white snake, a beautiful woman named Blanca, and the human man Ah Xuan, a village snake hunter. Blanca is discovered by Xuan unconscious and amnesiac, unaware of her nature as a demonic spirit. To recover her memory, the two embark on a journey retracing her steps, and discover that she was part of a clan of snake spirits sent to assassinate a powerful general that had been harnessing the snakes’ powers. On their journey, they fall deeply in love but are met with countless obstacles, including Blanca’s beloved sister Verta, a green snake demon who harbors a grudge against humans.
The core narrative of White Snake is comfortably familiar — it’s Studio Ghibli’s Castle in the Sky meets Disney’s Tangled, and the film liberally borrows elements from each. The goofy slapstick of Disney films, complete with a snarky talking dog sidekick, sits a little uneasily alongside the elegant Ghibli-esque whimsy, and it frequently feels like White Snake is too heavily leaning on these well-known tropes to come into its own. Its main characters are like a collection of attractive attributes: Xuan is the rogue-ish Aladdin meets Castle in the Sky‘s noble Pazu, Blanca has the naiveté and powers of Rapunzel with the dignity of Sheeta, but with a dark past.
But there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a simple retread, especially in a film so eager to prove itself. However, what could have been a forgivable simple, if predictable, premise gives way to too much plot. White Snake has at least two false starts before the main story gets going, and even then, the front half of the film is loaded with flashbacks that only serve to make the narrative even more convoluted. This overly complicated structure is indicative of the many ambitions of White Snake: it wants to be a global hit that appeals to as wide an audience as possible, but it also wants the prestige of arthouse animated films. In the end, it lands somewhere in the confusing in-between: the silly antics and predictable plotting of kids’ films clashing with the steamy, adult-targeted romance at the center. Yes, this is an animated movie with a sex scene, which seems a strange element to have when you’ve got a talking dog who makes quips about being cowardly, or something. However, it is those kinkier elements that make White Snake stand out — one particular sequence with a sexy fox demon lady and her overly affectionate dwarf helpers is so bizarre and borderline kinky that it makes you wish for the more sensual version of this film.
White Snake‘s greatest saving grace is its jaw-droppingly gorgeous animation. The level of detail in the film is staggering, with loving attention given to the vibrant environments and the surreal experimental sequences that look like traditional Chinese calligraphy paintings brought to life in eye-popping 3D animation. While the character designs themselves are a little too Disney with delicate embellishments, they are perfect vehicles for the film’s breathtakingly inventive action sequences, which play like a Wuxia fight between superheroes. Despite the complicated plot contrivances toward the latter half of the film, White Snake finally comes into its own in the last half hour once it sheds the skin of the Disney and Ghibli films it’s trying to emulate and becomes an awesome action-packed spectacle.
With White Snake, China’s burgeoning animation industry shows it is technically gifted but unoriginal in its storytelling. Rather than relying on the well-worn tropes done in better Western and Japanese films, White Snake would do better by giving the spotlight to the fascinating, tragic fable upon which its based, and help find Chinese animation an identity of its own.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10
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