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White Snake
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by Jay Seaver

"A big, entertaining adventure from China."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The White Snake story hasn't been as frequently retold as that of The Monkey King on-screen, although I can't help but feel there's been more in recent years than the one that came out in 2011 with Jet Li, Eva Huang, and Charlene Choi. It's a natural fit for animation, and though I'm a bit surprised to see this often fun (though weird) get a release on this side of the Pacific, it's at the very least a nifty change of pace for Western audiences whose kids could use a new animated adventure in their rotation.

As the story starts, green snake demon Xiao Qing (voice of Tang Xiaoxi) - "Blanca" in the subtitles - has tried to reach enlightenment for 500 years but, failing, is sent to the mortal realm for a mission against a general (voice of Zhang Boheng) who is gathering snakes to increase his occult powers with their life-force. She is only partially successful, losing her memory and knowledge of her snake form, and is rescued by A Xuan (voice of Yang Tianxiang), a resident of a village of snake-hunters who would prefer to become a doctor. With Xiao Qing missing, her closest friend Xiao Bai (voice of Zhang Zhe), aka "Verta", is sent to complete the mission, and though she loves Xiao Qing like a sister, it certainly <I>looks</I> like Xiao Qing has betrayed them and put their people in danger.

It's an enjoyable enough fantasy, framed the lesson that one is unlikely to reach enlightenment by separating oneself from the world even with centuries of meditation, but might become a better person by living among humans, having adventures that confront one with practical realities, and falling in love. There are times when it sometimes feels a bit like screenwriter Damao and directors Huang Jiakang & Zhao Ji are perhaps trying to reinterpret the myth for a more modern audience in a way that can make the plotting feel arbitrary, but for the most part the simple story has plenty of room for action, romance, and fun with talking-animal sidekicks who are kind of alarmed to find themselves talking.

The evil general killing snakes to absorb their power eventually starts to dictate where things are going, but that lets the filmmakers drop Xiao Qing, A Xuan, and company into some big, entertaining bits of action. This is the sort of animated adventure that is quite willing to take advantage of not needing to cut around stuntpeople or awkwardly live-action characters into fake environments, so things look fairly seamless, and the big set-pieces are as good as any in live action, including a nifty bit involving boats and the sort of elaborate underground labyrinth that feels like a very dangerous playground (it must have been really nifty if it played China in 3D).

I haven't seen enough Chinese feature animation to judge how good this is in comparison, although it seems like it didn't have quite as much computing power thrown at it as mega-hit Ne Zha. There's some impressive creativity here - one villain rides what can best be described as a "cerberostrich" - and nice staging, but there's something a little off about it; character proportions are a little too exact and motions a bit too smooth and programmed. It can feel like Robert Zemeckis's Beowulf in terms of going a long way to make animated characters feel human and not quite making it, and what stylization there is, like the eyes bigger than the mouths, doesn't help them emote quite as much as it should. It's not a bad look, but it's one more thing about the movie that feels like it could use a little refinement.

(It's worth noting that the version that played Fantasia was the original Mandarin-language soundtrack with subtitles. It sounds fine, and while I haven't heard the English dub that GKids is offering theaters and eventually on video, it seems notable that the voice cast looks to be mostly Asian-American actors.)

Like a lot of digitally animated films, "White Snake" has a tendency to get stuck in the uncanny valley when there's just "realistic" human beings on-screen, but becomes a lot of fun when the fantasy elements fully take over. Kids of all backgrounds should have a great time with it.

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originally posted: 11/29/19 03:48:14
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Jiakang Huang
  Ji Zhao

Written by

  Zhe Zhang
  Tianxiang Yang
  Xiaoxi Tang

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