What if Romeo and Juliet were meant to be together in a previous life?
That’s the core of the first Chinese animated movie from Warner Bros., White Snake. But don’t judge this film by looks alone and mistake it for a family-friendly Pixar film: White Snake feels more like a kung fu and romance film for an older audience, with a salacious opening and a steamy sex sequence.
White Snake is a prequel to Legend of the White Snake, China’s most famous romantic folktale -- though this is an all-new story.
It’s about two sisters, Blanca and Verta, snake demons who are persecuted for, er, being snake demons. Blanca, the white snake, fell in love with a mortal named Xu Xuan after being rescued by him when she went missing.
They’re the star-crossed lovers at the heart of the legendary story too -- except their meeting here, and this film’s plot, takes place 500 years before the well-known story begins.
It’s simple enough, but the story is pacy and captivating. Things just keep happening, and I never felt bored. If anything, the movie could use some breathing room: Unlike in Pixar films, White Snake rarely uses humor to give you a break. I don’t think the first joke came until halfway through the film.
Humor would also help defuse some of the overwrought emotion. It feels overly sentimental and even sappy at times, but in fairness that’s pretty much in line with most Chinese wuxia films.
What is surprising is just how much skin the characters show. The film begins with the two sisters bathing in a cave and ends with men drooling over a seductive fox demon. On top of that, there’s even a sex scene in a shed like the one in The Notebook. It caught me by surprise, and probably a few other people too -- the cinema was full of children!
It’s even more surprising given that the design of the two snake sisters reminds me a lot of a children’s classic, Frozen. Blanca and Verta share a similar look to Elsa and Anna. Blanca even wields magic in much the same way to Elsa.
There are also differences. Blanca is definitely not as cutesy as Elsa, with smaller and more realistic (but still too large) eyes, and a more slender body. To be honest, a lot of the characters reminded me of Chinese games like Honor of Kings (Arena of Valor in the West).
But beyond their looks, a bigger issue is that most of the characters in White Snake aren’t terribly likeable. For instance, Verta, the younger sister, is not only protective but almost possessive of her sister to the point where some of her lines felt borderline incestuous.
The male protagonist too quickly became annoying, with the almost unfathomable depth of his obsession with Blanca reminding me of Mike from Stranger Things. I cringed when he refused to let Blanca go and went up to her from behind to hug her (come on man, take the hint).
There were also too many villains by the end of the film, with sudden betrayals meaning the final fight was a four-way brawl that was way too messy.
It’s not helped by animation clearly not being up to the standards of Pixar or Dreamworks. The fight scenes are punchy and dynamic, but most movement feels too rigid and stuff. Characters just aren’t detailed enough or smooth enough, and stand out far too obviously from the backgrounds -- which, while gorgeous, sometimes look like still images instead of having actual depth.
A more damning assessment would be this: Sometimes it feels less like a movie than a collection of cutscenes from a game.
Still, audiences seemed to disagree, and the film did well at the Chinese box office -- opening the way for a sequel so obviously teased by the producers at the end of White Snake.
For most people, I’d say wait until that sequel. Chinese animation is growing fast and improving just as quickly, so there’s every chance that the sequel may fix a lot of the problems here.
If you’re a fan of Chinese folktales or mythology, White Snake could be worth a look when it arrives on streaming services. Otherwise, you’re better off skipping this one for now.