Though the Chinese legend of Lady White Snake dates back to around the Tang Dynasty (that's the 600s, y'all), its enduring legacy has stretched into any number of television, comic book, opera and film formats. Its newest foray is that of the computer animated film from newcomer directors Amp Wong, previously an animator himself, and Ji Zhao, previously an editor, and it's a rather enjoyable though imperfect retelling.
In the tale, a beautiful woman/snake spirit named Blanca is sent to assassinate an evil general who is using dark magic to consolidate his power. Failing, she loses her memories and awakens sometime later in a Snakecatcher Village high in the mountains. There, the denizens catch snakes for a living for some reason; there, she falls in love with Xuan, the black sheep of the villagers who fears snakes but thirsts for knowledge alongside his dog Dudou. Blanca mistakenly believes herself to be human, but as her snake spirit kin and the evil general search for her, she slowly begins to remember her past as Xuan winds up willing to do whatever it takes to be with her—even giving up his humanity altogether.
Cue martial arts and awesome demons both good and bad; cue legendary Chinese storytelling tradition of challenging adventure and painful circumstance which both make way for moral and inter-personal growth. White Snake is a gorgeously animated affair, from the strange worlds of windswept mountains and frozen battlefields to the bizarre and exaggerated takes on Chinese demons.
While certain characters, mostly Xuan, fall victim to the uncanny valley, others, particularly a fox demon and some of the snake spirits, bear artful and compelling designs. It's a pity other characters like Dudou the dog wind up feeling Disney-fied at times, but for every moment it feels like White Snake might be pandering for laughs, it unleashes a massive fight scene choreographed and animated in a way we don't honestly see in the States or a story beat far more tragic and real than we're used to from such films.
But then, it's hard to tell exactly who White Snake is for. Some scenes contain non-cartoonish violence while others are far too sexy for kids—so why does the dog seem to play to youths? Chalk it up to some kind of cultural difference; maybe kids in China are trusted to understand darker themes? Either way, White Snake never treats its audience like it won't or can't understand, and that is rare in animated features.
So really, don't take your kids unless they're a little older, and don't expect hand holding. Instead, prepare for an artfully told journey film with enough surprising elements to feel fresh and enough familiar ones as to avoid culture shock. You'll laugh and cry and also probably gasp—you'll forgive them for a middle section that feels sooooo long and boring.
+Killer animation; darker themes
-Comedy that doesn't land; the middle lags
Directed by Wong and Zhao
Jean Cocteau Cinema, NR, 99 min.