Technically a prequel to the ancient Chinese “Legend of the White Snake” tale (which has ben interpreted in a number of major Chinese operas, films, and television series), White Snake tells the story of the sisters White Snake and Green Snake in this perhaps overly slick CGI-animated adventure. Like a great deal of Chinese fantasy films, the rules of the domain are a bit fuzzy and seem to be made up as they go along, but that’s also part of the appeal, since it’s virtually impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. Set during the Tang Dynasty, a small village is under the rule of a cruel general who forces the villagers to capture snakes that he then sucks the souls out of to keep him immortal.
A young snake hunter named Yuan (who actually loathes the practice of catching snakes) comes across a beautiful young woman named Blanca, who wakes up with no memory of how she arrived there. Yuan is only too happy to escort her through the nearby terrain in the hopes that something will trigger memories to her likely supernatural past, as she begins to display powers that make it clear she is not exactly human. Directed by Amp Wong and Ji Zhao, White Snake primarily consists of Blanca’s search for her lost memories and a magic jade hairpin that may hold the key to not only her past but defeat the great evils of this land as well. When her Green Snake sister Verta finally finds her, we’re not quite sure if she’s on the side of good or evil demons that take the shape of giant snakes, who don’t like it when they meet a village of snake hunters, and would certainly make a tasty meal for the evil general.
The film is positively beautiful—certainly not traditional animation (although there is ink-painting mixed in with the CG), but not exactly like anime either. The number of both lovely and terrifying creatures is endless, with demons, a fox fairy (and her deeply creepy sidekicks), a talking dog, and beautifully realized backgrounds and details. There’s an especially jaw-dropping sequence involving a flash deep freeze that sets in over the land, turning everything and everyone into a frozen statue, and rivals any of the animation in a Frozen movie.
Still, some of the animation is so perfect and without flaws that it feels soulless and lacking warmth. And as I said, the vague and improvised nature of the fantasy rules of White Snake kept me on my toes, but will likely leave many viewers scratching their heads as to what’s going on, and sometimes even who to root for. That being said, some may be won over by the artistry, and there’s no shame in that—this film will look stunning on a bigger screen. But a few too may flaws kept me from being as deeply engaged as I think the film’s emotional center demands—this is a love story that doesn’t seem to like its romantic leads nearly as much as its villains. It’s a close call, but the movie didn’t pull me in as deeply as I need to be with a fantasy story.
The film opens today for a two-week run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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