An often strikingly beautiful but confusing animated feature from China’s Light Chaser studio, “White Snake” takes elements from a classic myth and transforms them into a twisted tale of love, supernatural conflict and redemption.
Not be confused with the Grimm fairy tale of the same name, the Chinese fable “The White Snake” dates to at least the Ming dynasty. Over the centuries, it‘s been adapted to plays, Peking operas, television shows and films, including two previous animated features. Directors Amp Wong and Zhao Ji take little more than the basic love story between a human male and a powerful female snake spirit for their “prequel” myth.
Blanca, the heroine, can appear in human or serpent form, although the latter is much more interesting to watch. Her design is an extravagant mix of opalescent scales and brilliant plumes, and the animation of her coils displays a flair and vivacity her doll-like human version lacks.
Like the character in the original tale, Blanca has spent centuries practicing Taoist magic, hoping to achieve immortality, often in the company of her companion Verta. In this version, the queen of the snake people sends Blanca to slay an evil human general who is also trying to reach immortality. He repels the attack and literally sends her flying. She lands near a waterfall, where she’s found by Xuan, a kindly, klutzy polymath. Although she’s lost all memory of who and what she is, Blanca and Xuan quickly fall in love, despite Verta’s objections.
Seldom has the path of true love been strewn with so many obstacles. Xuan and Blanca must battle the general, his fey lieutenant, his troops, the snake queen, her army, a bizarre fox spirit and sometimes Verta. The characters transform, hurl magic spells and combat monsters in a series of prolonged fight sequences.
Some of the special effects are genuinely spectacular, but the narrative is often difficult to follow.
Many elements in “White Snake” feel borrowed from recent American animated films: the nervously moving camera, the CG roller-coaster rides, the realistic water, the cute talking dog sidekick, the blows struck in a combination of slo-mo and accelerated motion (no one hits anyone at regular speed anymore). The screen seems barely able to contain all the elaborate effects in the fight scenes, from smoke, fire, ice and explosions to nasty, multi-headed bird monsters and origami-like warriors.
“White Snake” leaves the viewer with the equivalent of a hangover from too many over-the-top visuals, rather than the satisfaction of seeing two star-crossed lovers achieve the happiness they deserve.
Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 15, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles