While relatively unknown in the west, the “Legend of the White Snake” is one of the oldest and most venerated folks tales in China, and as such has been brought to the screen and stage numerous times. After all, fables and folktales have proved themselves to be enduring and adaptable enough that the real classics will probably never truly fade from the cultural landscape. Light Chaser Animation’s new telling of the story certainly jazzes it up for modern audiences, with dazzling animation and some modern sensibilities added to the tried-and-true romantic melodrama and high fantasy. While definitively rooted in Chinese myth and legends, the film also seems to be aiming for an international audience, and will most likely succeed in this ambition.
In ancient China, a cruel general versed in the dark arts has begun stealing the life force of snakes in order to aid in the Emperor’s bid for immortality. An assassin is sent in the form of the white snake, Blanca, who like many of her more powerful clan is able to take human form. Blanca’s assassination attempt fails, and she loses her memory in the process. Found by the inhabitants of a village of snake catchers, she soon falls in love with the dashing young Xuan, only to have her former life come back to haunt her.
The main draw for White Snake is the visuals, which are beautifully rendered and absolutely dazzling from start to finish. While the art direction and character designs occasionally evoke North American animation, the vast majority of the film’s aesthetic feels refreshingly unique. While not overly stylized, there’s a painterly quality to the backdrops and locales, with a deliberate use of color and an emphasis on stunning vistas. Creative visual gags abound, like the face-switching demon blacksmith or the spectacular magical battles, which eventually escalate into dizzying fights between giant serpents and legions of warriors made of living, folded paper.
Some of the film’s attempts at humor fall a tad flat, however, particularly when Xuan’s loyal canine sidekick is given the gift of speech for no discernible reason. Parents looking for a fun alternative to the latest Dreamworks or Pixar movie might also get nervous at some of the more risque suggestions, like a near-sex scene or the demon weapon smith’s perilously plunging neckline. But overall, the film is a fun and visually captivating ride which proves that CG animation isn’t just for the West.
The Relative Worlds
Our protagonists sit in a comfortably but blandly decorated living room discussing mass murder. Among them are two alternate-universe doppelgangers and a pair of advanced combat robots that (naturally) look like 13-year-old girls. It’s been determined that an alternate Earth can be saved from despotic rule, and all it will take is a few murders here in our world. “Maybe we should get some food” suggests one character. “Yes, we do not require food, but are capable of expelling waste” responds one of the robots. An upbeat pop tune creeps into the soundtrack, and a montage of our heroes out on the town begins — now that we’re safe in the knowledge that the robots can indeed poop. This scene really encapsulates everything weird and disjointed about The Relative Worlds, an ungainly wreck of a movie with tonal and pacing problems to spare, and little to offer anime fans or filmgoers on the whole.
The action begins (as these things often do) with a pair of ordinary high-schoolers. A rash of unexplained deaths has begun to plague Japan, and the two discover the truth after doppelgangers and robots invade their burgeoning romance: an alternate version of Earth came into existence after World War I, they learn, and on that Earth the shy Kotori is a cruel despot. Jin, the alternate version of her classmate and love interest, Shin, has hopped from one reality to the other to kill Kotori, which will cause her opposite in his own universe to die as well. To counter Jin’s powerful and imposing combat robot, Kotori’s other-universe counterpart has sent her a protector: the diminutive android, Miko.
The Relative Worlds suffers from the odd problem of having too much story, but at the same time being almost maddeningly simplistic. Before the audience can get too confused, a helpful narrator makes his one and only appearance to meticulously outline the premise in exacting detail. Not long after, new information drastically changes the stakes and goals of the movie, in just one of many sudden gear shifts sure to leave audiences with mild whiplash. The film never settles on one set of objectives long enough for audiences to get comfortable, and it feels like a much longer, multi-arc story has been brutally condensed into a cramped 90-odd minutes. The tone veers about wildly, and seemingly important plot elements drop in and out like unwanted guests. In its few moments of clarity, it also mostly walks in the footsteps of films and series that came before, never offering any characters or story beats that won’t feel familiar to anime fans.
While some of the art direction is at least mildly interesting, The Relative Worlds is nonetheless an absolute mess of storytelling missteps that casual audiences will find too weird, and anime fans will mostly likely find derivative and awkward.