Way better than expected, a classic Chinese tale is repackaged as a beautifully animated action-fantasy…
When editor-in-chief Andrew offered this one up for review, I have to admit, my heart sank. Having already seen Mulan given a tone-deaf remake this year, I was expecting another horrible misstep. The Legend of the White Snake is one of the classic stories of Chinese Literature, and has been adapted for the stage, and screens big and small numerous times. For us Western Asian Cinema nerds? The classic version is Tsui Hark’s 1993 classic, Green Snake, that looked at the story from the point of view of a different protagonist than normal, and had an amazing cast including such luminaries as Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong. So this one had a huge hurdle to jump… but I believe that maybe, just maybe… it pretty much succeeds.
Set back in ancient times, where humans and demons lived side-by-side (albeit antagonistically) White Snake tells the tale of Blanca, a white snake-demon who is left in a state of amnesia (and human appearance) after a failed assassination attempt on a Human General. She finds herself in a village populated by people whose only role is that of Snake-Catchers. A young man called Xuan takes an interest in her, and accompanies her on a journey to discover Blanca’s past. Obviously, the two grow attached to each other, even when the truth of Blanca’s demonic roots are revealed. Blanca’s sister, Green Snake Verta is tasked with tracking down her wayward sister, and she is not happy to see her sister hooking up with a human (and yes, there does appear to be a theme here using French words Blanc and Vert… the pronunciation of Xuan is twisted into the french homophone to give us a clue as to his fate) Xuan is undeterred when it is made clear to him that humans and demons cannot be together, and he makes a bargain with a Fox-Demon to change all this. This obviously leads to the required big battle at the end, but that’s the nature of the beast.
First and foremost? This is a beautiful looking film. The animation is stunning and the visual style on display is fantastic. Whether you look at the backgrounds, the characters, or even just the movement of all the characters, this is a fantastic visual success. Blanca and Verta look like sisters, but there are subtleties in their design that differentiate them. The Fox-Demon who runs a mystical trading post could be taken from Ghibli’s Spirited Away (although more on her later). The Snake-Demons in their serpentine forms have both a physical heft, and are equally beautifully complex and terrifying. The animation itself is great, especially when imparting characters with Wuxia like bounds and near-flying like jumps – it just feels and looks both natural and magical at the same time.
Character work is equally good. Xuan might be a hero straight out of modern Disney (he’s too good to be true, he’s progressive, he’s addicted to sacrificing himself), but in Blanca and Verta there’s a really great pairing here. Amnesiac Blancs might be all sweetness and light, but her true nature in constantly visible just under her skin. Verta is even better. She is only ever looking out for her sister, and may well be indoctrinated by a cult-mentality, but there’s a depth and complexity to her that I was surprised to see. On the downside? The villain(s) of the piece (of which there are several) are a little more one-note and just bwah-ha-ha evil.
The story is a little more ho-hum. Apart from a really surprising death, everything pretty much plays out as one would expect. It doesn’t really have that machine common with the classic tale from which it draws its title, but then again you could point that accusation at any number of more recent adaptations of the work. But this lack of real subversion of the standard narrative is what holds this adaptation back. Oh, there’s also a talking dog, who doesn’t really have any real role to play in the narrative other than give Xuan someone to talk to, and feels somewhat pointless.
My only real complaint, however, is the question on – who exactly is this film aimed at? It’s way too scary for younger children, not only are their giant scary Snake-Demons, but there are quite gruesome moments of violence on display. Furthermore, that Fox-Demon I was talking about earlier? Well, she’s kinda disturbing – and I mean in a strange Japanese Anime kind of pre-pubescent sexuality way that doesn’t quite belong here. On the other hand, the storyline is so routine, it will struggle to draw in an older, more demanding audience.
White Snake is however far, far better than I expected. Even with my qualms, it’s an entertaining romp, and probably one of the most beautiful looking films I have seen this year. If you are a fan of classic Disney animation, and find Anime just too difficult to appreciate – you could do far worse than give this one a try.