White Snake, the latest from Beijing-based studio Light Chaser Animation, in collaboration with Warner Bros., is an origin story to one of China’s most iconic folktales, the Legend of the White Snake. The story has been adapted numerous times on stage, radio, and screens large and small — the most iconic being the 1958 film, Panda and the White Serpent, the first color Japanese anime film.
Recently screened as part of this year’s Fantasia Film Festivaland coming soon to Animation Block Party at New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music, this romantic fantasy shows that while Chinese animation still has a long way to go to match anything from the United States and Japan, it is continuing to make progress after decades of lagging behind in relevance.
The film opens with Blanca, a snake spirit who can shape-shift into human form, awakening after meditating for half a millennium. She wishes to gain immortality, but finds herself unable to do so. To help Blanca find what is keeping her from eternal life, her sister, Verte, hands her a jade hairpin. The mystical object unlocks memories hidden in Blanca’s mind, taking her (along with us) 500 years into the past.
After failing to assassinate an evil general who hopes to gain immortality, Blanca awakens in perhaps the worse place imaginable for a snake spirit: a village full of snake catchers, aptly named Snakecatcher Village. She has no memory of the assassination attempt or even who she is. Xu Xuan, a charming, clumsy, good-hearted man who practices apothecary — and, like Indiana Jones, has an intense fear of snakes — finds her. Together, with Xuan’s dog Dodou, they embark on an adventure to recover her memories, falling in love while battling both humans and demons.
White Snake starts off strong, with a wonderful visual sequence that recalls the ink-wash style pioneered by animator Te Wei. Ideally Light Chaser would have adopted that stunning style, rather than its insipid Disney look. While the film lacks innovative or detailed character designs, the smooth wuxia action and exemplary background art make up for it. White Snake isn’t on the same level as Toy Story 4, but from the colossal mountains that surround the village to the geometric and colorful wonder that is the Precious Jade Workshop, it’s obvious that the team created this world with great care. Unfortunately, this level of detail does not extend to the overall story and characters. With the exception of the Fox Demon, a chibi, two-faced femme fatale who carries herself with confidence and sass, all of the characters in White Snake are remarkably bland, especially the lackluster and forgettable villains.
GKIDS will be releasing the film in select theaters stateside this November. For parents who expect the snake sisters to be Asian versions of Elsa and Anna, let me warn you now that while White Snake has the appearance of a Disney film, it was not made for a Disney audience. The film includes two features you won’t find in any animated (or live-action) Disney film: blood and actual, physical intimacy. White Snake doesn’t go full hentai, but in one scene it’s clear that our two leads are going to do more than just kiss. While some audiences might find the rather lovely moment off-putting in an animated film, to me it was refreshing. It’s heartening that a studio has enough respect for its audience to not shy away from this exchange between characters.
It’s been almost a century since the Wan Brothers first produced animated advertisements, which gave rise to the Chinese animation industry. In the 1960s, films like Havoc in Heaven and The Buffalo Boy’s Flute were some of the most accomplished animations in the world. Because of the cultural revolution, the industry was put on hold, and by the time it restarted, China found itself far behind the work of Disney and the high quality, mature animated films of Japanese directors like Isao Takahata, Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo, and Mamoru Oshii.
In the last few years, China has produced some under-the-radar gems like Big Fish & Begonia, Da Hu Fa, and the phenomenal Ne Zha, and while White Snake only grossed a respectable $67 million dollar gross (compared to the $650 million Ne Zha earned), Light Chaser may have its first major franchise. Hopefully future installments will see the creative team expanding on the many positives found in this film, while breaking free of the narrative blocks that hinder it. If the resurging Chinese animation industry can avoid the kind of government censorship that has plagued recent live-action Chinese films, it can once again produce some of the world’s best animated films.