'White Snake': Film Review

White Snake Animated Still 1 - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of GKIDS
Imaginative and visually stunning.

GKIDS' first Chinese animated film release, a prequel to an ancient Chinese folk legend, is one of 32 films in contention for this year's best animated feature Oscar.

You don't need to know that the latest effort from China's Light Chaser Animation Studios is a prequel to an oft-dramatized ancient Chinese folk tale to appreciate the film's visual sweep and entertaining action sequences. Geared to more sophisticated viewers rather than children (at one point, the two main characters are shown preparing to get hot and heavy between the sheets), the CGI-animated pic infused with heavy doses of wuxia-style action should well please fantasy fans. White Snake is one of 32 movies submitted for this year's best animated feature Oscar.  

The film, co-directed by Amp Wong and Ji Zhao and being shown in both subtitled and English-dubbed versions, concerns the fateful meeting between Blanca (Zhang Zhe), a warrior snake demon temporarily in human form thanks to her magical jade hairpin, and Xuan (Yang Tianxiang), a human snake hunter who is less than proficient at his job. After failing in her assigned mission to assassinate an evil general, Blanca has lost her memory, so Xuan agrees to accompany her across the countryside in an effort to help her reclaim her identity.

Cue both a series of fantastical adventures and a burgeoning love story, as the two attractive young people (well, at least one of them) embark on their journey, accompanied by Xuan's loyal dog Dodou. Along the way they encounter various fantastical figures, including a three-headed crane and the supervisor of a "demon jade workshop" whose head is half-woman, half-fox. Along the way, Blanca's true identity as a demon is revealed, thanks to her jealous sister Verta (Tang Xiaoxi). Both Xuan and his dog eventually wind up becoming demons themselves, resulting in Xuan growing a tail and Dodou losing his, while gaining the ability to speak. What mostly concerns Xuan about his transformation, however, is whether or not a certain body part has been left intact, which, much to his relief after a quick check, it has.

Xuan is indeed so tolerant that when Blanca, with whom he has by now fallen in love, morphs back into her demonic incarnation as a giant snake, he's barely fazed. "You're huge, so what?" he comments, sounding like Joe E. Brown shrugging "Nobody's perfect" when Jack Lemmon tells him he's really a man in 1959's Some Like It Hot.

Of course, the film's target audience will be less interested in the love story and comic relief elements than the action sequences, of which there are plenty. While the human character designs tend toward the bland side, the demonic figures are rendered in genuinely creepy fashion. And the background animation proves spectacular throughout, often resembling traditional Chinese ink paintings and providing a surreal feel to the imaginative proceedings.

Those unfamiliar with the source material (which also inspired Tsui Hark's 1993 live-action pic Green Snake, starring Maggie Cheung, as well as numerous other films, plays and operas) may find themselves a bit lost attempting to follow the convoluted plot. And the pile-on of frenetic action sequences, especially toward the end, eventually becomes more wearisome than thrilling. Nonetheless, White Snake, a Warner Bros. co-production and box office hit in its native country, proves a superior effort that should find enthusiastic audiences on our shores.

Production companies: Light Chaser Animation Studios, Warner Bros. Entertainment
Distributor: GKIDS
Cast: Zhang Zhe, Yang Tianxiang, Tang Xiaoxi, Zhang He, Zheng Xiaopu, Zhang Lei, Liu Wei, Zhang Yaohan, Zhang Boheng, Cheng Yin, Chen Linsheng, Hui Long, Zhang Bin, Lin Qiang
Directors: Amp Wong, Ji Zhao
Screenwriter: Da Mao
Producers: Gary Wang, Gillian Zhao, Cui Di
Executive producers: Yu Zhou, Yuan Ye
Editor: Zhu Keer
Production designer: Teng Yanwen
Composer: Guo Haowei

98 minutes