ANNECY ANIMATION FESTIVAL 2019: WHITE SNAKE
Directed by Amp Wong’s and Ji Zhao, this CGI movie is a prequel to the classical Chinese folk tale “The Legend of the White Snake”. After a good white snake demon (demons aren’t always bad in Chinese mythology) Blanca fails to assassinate an evil overlord, she wakes up in a small village with no memory or awareness who and what she really is. She meets a young and handsome snake catcher named Ah Xuan and the two travel to the spot in the mountains where she was found to look for clues of her real identity. As Blanca slowly starts to discover she has magical powers, the two start falling in love, which is a problem for the demon-fearing people and causes tension between Blanca and her sister Vera, the green snake demon. All the while evil forces are fighting for power over the land.
Let’s start with the strongest element of the film, the gorgeous animation! This is Amp Wong and Ji Zhao’s first animated feature (the former previously worked as the lead animator for Green Lantern: The Animated Series in 2011) and they should be proud of what they have accomplished here. Even if you don’t care about the plot, there’s no question that this is absolutely breathtaking to watch, every scene showcasing the very detailed flora of the land. The story takes its time to build mood with its score and the presentation of the lush environment with its rich colors. It’s one of those movies that makes you want to grab the nearest plane to China and spent a week in the countryside, especially the mountains. You also get a deep appreciation for their culture and folklore; people who really understand Chinese history made this. There are plenty of great monsters on display, from snake-people hybrids to three-headed birds. Scenes centered around spirituality are also full of atmosphere and a few sequences pay homage in their style to traditional Chinese art. The character movements are quite cool. We get some neat snake action, a very beautiful flying sequence, and a thrilling action-packed climax that has everything from magic duels, to heroes fighting a blizzard, to a short but thrilling Kaiju fight. This is truly stuff worthy of the experience on the big screen. At least, as far as the animation goes.
Sadly the flaws begin when we get to the script. The main storyline is ok even if it felt at times only an excuse for the action set pieces and the above mentioned “scenery porn” and there’s even a nice twist or two along the way. While I’m not familiar with the legend this is based on, it’s not too difficult to follow the story. The problem is with the main heroes. Blanca comes off as bland and colorless. I’m not saying every heroine should be a total badass or have a larger than life personality, but there’s very little to her character outside of seeming either calm or confused. Yes, she is meant to be a spiritual being with not but so much relation to humans, but her sister Verta is also a snake-demon and she is imbued here with charisma, character, and complexity. Sadly, Verta is only in half of the movie. Xuan the snake catcher was tad more fun then Blanca, but still mostly comes off as a generic nice guy. The romance between the two is consequently pretty dull. There is zero to no chemistry between them. If the movie took time for them to have some adventures together before their love developed perhaps we would have felt more for their connection, but they fall in love after five minutes of screen time. Their “human/snake-demon” star-crossed lovers story-arc is filled with poorly handled, overly-melodramatic pathos which is so out of a cheap Harlequin romance novel it comes off as comical. There’s a scene where two have sex (don’t worry children, nothing is graphically shown), which is immediately followed by Blanca telling Xuan in a deadpan manner that she does not love him, which had half of the audience bursting with laughter.
The mood is all over the place. Xuan has a “comedy-relief dog” whose entire point of existence is to provide some of the cheapest gags that decidedly panders to the youngest audiences, which is odd as a lot of this is not really appropriate for kids (see the aforementioned sex scene). Just when I was starting to acclimate and think that the dog isn’t *THAT* annoying…BAM! For literally no reason that I could deduce Blanca grants him the power to speak, adding constant screaming and whining to his already unappealing tirades.
The most entertaining and interesting aspect as the characters go was Bao Qin Fang, the magical dealer. Fang is a two-faced demon, who switches between the visage of a ferocious fox monster and a pipe-smoking, giggling girl. Not only did she feel threatening in both forms, as she was so chaotic it’s never clear if she is actually going to help the heroes or if there’s some back-stabbing Faustian deal being prepared, but she was also genuinely funny. Sometimes she’s sexy and cute, other times she’s thrashing her minions (who oddly looked like stereotypical Asian caricatures from American WWII cartoons) in a Three Stooges manner. She provided also a lot of very cool and trippy scenes with surrealistic imagery. Apparently, the creators also felt she was one of the highlights of the movie as she was showcased in a lot of the marketing, even though she’s only in the film for about six minutes. She would have made for a much more interesting primary antagonist than the film’s actual villain who is mostly a flamboyant mustache twirler. Heck, she would have made for better comic relief than the constantly annoying dog.
For all my complaining and nitpicking I did overall enjoy White Snake and I think it’s worth checking out. The poetic parts work great but the story doesn’t live up to the spectacular animation. A truly epic tale deserves truly epic heroes and these artificial and awkward leads didn’t fit the bill, despite having some really cool supporting characters. Still, if you just want to experience some great animation I would recommend checking this movie out. GKIDS is planning to release it in the USA this fall.