It is not every day that you can watch an animated film and be so distracted by the exorbitant price tags affixed to every scene to the point that you feel like you are watching a big-budget flex instead of a movie. White Snake, an international co-production between Beijing-based Light Chaser Studios and Warner Bros., positions itself as a filmic statement addressing the myopia of the Western monopoly on the feature animation industry, where major productions from other countries stand no chance as competition (outside of maybe the occasional runaway anime hit from Japan).
As director Amp Wong and Zhao Ji see things, the remedy is to throw around an excessive budget to produce the most slick, glossy, prestige picture China’s animation industry as ever promoted for international distribution. Of course, the smoothness of its visuals and unapologetic style of its set pieces cannot belie how shockingly vacuous an experience White Snake is. (But at least it’s pretty to look at?)
Taking its inspiration from the Legend of White Snake, a classic sign of an inarguable prestige picture, the film serves as a prequel to the story proper and involves several of its characters before the events of the fable well known within its native country. For others, such as a neophyte of Chinese mythology like myself, much of White Snake’s set up and referential acknowledgment to the story may soar directly over your head. The filmmakers couching its rather simple love story between realms in a broader mythos deeply complicates the film, so the prospect of this being an international release is frankly baffling because it does next to nothing to ease its audiences into the dense lore.
Relaying the plot is next to impossible, but basically White Snake only carries two of the central characters from the mythos, the snake demonesses Blanca and Verta, and backdrops them against a major supernatural war between the human and demon worlds, fueled by a human general’s lust for divine power, which he extracts from the denizens of the demon world.
A failed assassination attempt by Blanca on said general leaves her with amnesia (yes, actually) and then later rescued by Xuan, a homely snake hunter whose kindness initiates her into the human world as they trace back her fleeting memories to discover who she is. This of course sets up a chain of events that not only lead s to their unlikely world- defying romance but also a massive-scale conflict between the animalized demons and the selfish humans, drawing out into epic scenes of combat and magic, which are all dizzying and confusing.
While the film’s stellar visual quality and sense of flow for its animation is to be commended, this amounts to little when the story is so muddled, stale and repetitive. The film is overstuffed with mindless action set pieces of Xuan and Blanca battling some monster/demon, and it so easy to look over the high fidelity of the images when you cannot read the action that well and you’re never given a break from it.
Putting the decorative components aside, the film’s staccato sense of flow and prioritizing style over all forms of substance leaves White Snake woefully empty feeling. Take for example the scene set in a mystical jJade weapon’s shop, one that is overstuffed with audacious colors and moving parts of impossibly complex geography. It’s a nice sight but leaves no staying power and only really drives home much money such a scene cost to put into the film.
And for a prestige picture set to compete on the global marketplace, White Snake is not only derivative of its ancient mythos source material but also of many weathered animation tropes of the West. Gleaning past the story tropes of the amnesia and the two different worlds romance angles, Xuan also has a propensity for bungling slapstick humor with his cute animal sidekick…who eventually talks. It’s a minor complaint in the grander scheme of an inscrutable film of dense lore and affectless action, but these details stand out as the most put upon for the sake of a global audience.
Yet the film looks good and moves well enough to be visually entertaining if you don’t mind not having a single impression left upon you while you watch. It’s eye candy is the one thing it has going for it despite failing to impress upon us the importance of its legend or the liberties it takes from it, making White Snake a multi-million dollar spectacle that fizzles out before it can actually do anything substantial.