The fourth feature by China’s Light Chaser Animation Studios — and its first co-production with Warner Bros. — is a lively prequel to the Chinese legend that’s inspired countless screen adaptations since the silent era. Though not as technically polished as world’s best animations and lacking a memorable villain, this tale of a snake demon girl who falls for a kindhearted human is packed with exciting adventure. After grossing an impressive $67 million in China earlier this year, “Snake” will require careful marketing in foreign territories where animation is almost exclusively associated with family entertainment; containing some mildly risqué visuals and light sexual references, the film is not suitable for all ages. Specialty distributor Gkids has acquired North American rights, with release details yet to be announced.
One of the Four Great Chinese Folk Tales, “Legend of the White Snake” originated as a cautionary horror yarn. During its centuries-long life in print, theater, opera and on screens, it has evolved into a story of forbidden love threatened by both earthly and otherworldly forces. Rather than rolling out familiar events once again, this entry establishes a “White Snake” cinematic universe with an origins story set 500 years before the oft-told tale commences.
Known as Bai Suzhen in the folktale and identified in English subtitles as Blanca (voiced by Zhang Zhe), the titular character is a demon that can assume human form but cannot achieve her cherished goal of immortality. The answer lies in long-ago events that Blanca cannot recall. After being given a magical jade hairpin by her green snake sister, Verta (Tang Xiaoxi, voicing the original character of Xiaoqing), Blanca is suddenly transported back to Tang Dynasty times.
Combining 3D CGI work with splashes of the unique ink painting style that distinguished Chinese animation in the 1950s and ‘60s, “White Snake” doesn’t contain the same detailed facial expressions and flowing body movement of top-tier productions. But as Blanca’s journey gets under way, the film proves to be right up there with the best when it comes to background design.
Blanca’s first stop is a village nestled between magnificent stone pillars rising hundreds of yards into the sky. The staggeringly beautiful location is home to Sean (Yang Tianxiang, as the Xi Xian character), a handsome hunter with a funny talking dog named Doudou (Zhang He). Along with the rest of the downtrodden villagers, Sean is forced to catch snakes for Dark General (Zhang Yaohan) and sidekick Little General (Zhang Boheng). These wicked military men, who believe vipers hold the key to supreme power, make splashy entrances but don’t contribute much thereafter.
Gorgeously detailed landscapes abound as Sean and Doudou accompany Blanca on a quest to discover her identity and realize her destiny. Characters they meet along the way include Fox Spirit (Zheng Xiaopu and Zhang Lei), a mischievous, scantily clad creature with a fox face on one side and a vampy, flapper girl-like visage on the other. Elsewhere there’s Snake Master (Liu Wei), a fearsome female snake demon leader who sends Blanca to assassinate Dark General.
First-time feature writer Da Mao and debuting feature co-directors Zhao Ji and Amp Wong strike a pleasing balance between thunderous action scenes and appealing romance. As Blanca gradually discovers her true demon identity, Sean takes the sweet and very radical step — in regards to Chinese folklore tradition — of wanting to become a demon so their seemingly impossible love might prosper. In one tender moment, the couple are clearly seen to be on the cusp of making love.
A few story details relating to reincarnation, transformation and human-demon relationships are bound to be a little confusing for some audiences unfamiliar with Chinese mythology. But universal themes of love and self-discovery are strong, and sure to carry most viewers happily through a tale that’s well served by Guo Haowei’s rousing score and lovely tunes including “Why Ask,” which is sung by Sean to Blanca as they travel down an extraordinarily beautiful river.