If there were a culture whose folkloric history could be treated as a goldmine for adaptable material, you’d be hard-pressed to find annals of stories and heroes to rival those of China. Not even touching upon the tumultuous and dramatic history of the country, which has served as the inspiration for as wide a range of filmmakers as Zhang Yimou to Bernardo Bertolucci, China’s mystical fables and legends have been passed down through the culture and wormed their way into the most mainstream and far-flung reaches of pop culture. I mean, Kung Fu Panda‘s got to come from some nugget of history, right?
Perhaps not, though White Snake would look to assert a strong Chinese voice into the realm of animated features, expressing an authentic and vibrant tale from the country’s rich stable of legends. Though it might have the intention of relegating the ancient and mysterious past, it too often falls into the trap of contemporary animation cliche, and a generally unsurprising course despite its lush visuals.
Director: Wong Amp and Zhao Ji
Release Date: November 29, 2019
After we catch a glimpse of a failed assassination attempt on a cruel General, the would-be killer Blanca is left amnesiac and vulnerable, until she’s rescued by a village of snake catchers. Taken under the wing of the kind mountain-dwellers, she meets plucky upstart Xuan, and together the two piece together Blanca’s fragmented memory and discover there to be more to her than it would seem, all while falling in love in a lush and mystical world.
The world conjured up in White Snake is far and away the film’s greatest achievement. Snakecatcher Village is a rocky series of outposts, strung together by precarious bridges set against the red, autumnal sides of vast mountains. Xuan and Blanca’s trek takes them to verdant forests and demonic underbellies, with the film’s palette shifting dramatically from location to storybook-colored location. Light Chaser Animation, the studio responsible for White Snake, has really put together an impressive backdrop for our story to unfold against, making the film easy on the eyes, if nothing else. With such gorgeous environments, the ho-hum character designs stand out just a little more, with some of the creatures that dote White Snake‘s realm appearing a little goofy in their tranquil surroundings.
It isn’t so much that the animation fails White Snake, but the cores of these characters can feel remarkably empty. Xuan, our spunky village-boy had me rolling my eyes, trying not to be jaded by his bustling introduction and comic relief sidekick dog Dudou. When it goes through the motions, checking off archetypes, White Snake‘s colorful atmosphere isn’t enough to keep it afloat.
The relationship between Blanca and Xuan, who become increasingly close despite their love being something of a taboo in their respective social circles, is meant to be our anchor in White Snake, with the brewing conflict between humans and creatures and the infighting amongst those groups ultimately all there to usher in the couple’s message of love, at any cost. It’s wholesome, but maybe just a little simple.
White Snake‘s pace is livened by fast and frequent action, where we’re treated to sensational magic and classic swordplay, where the film earns its place in the wuxia canon. China’s long history of martial fiction feels like a clear means of adapting the film’s classic fable base, providing action and excitement to compliment themes of immortality and forbidden love.
I wish I liked White Snake more than I did. There’s certainly a story worth hearing here, with a gorgeous canvas and some notes of historic importance and excitement in the story’s action set pieces. But for as much as it should feel like an ancient parable of love and unity, White Snake rubbed me as just another animation for kids. Maybe it should have shed some of its skin.