Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958)
(A.K.A. The Tale of the White Serpent)
Directed by Kazuhiko Okabe & Taiji Yabushita

Artistic Value: * * ½
Entertainment Value: * * * ½

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Somewhere in medieval China, after a fierce storm, a magical white snake is transformed into a beautiful young woman, Bai-Niang, and a small fish is changed into her handmaid. Near to where these miraculous events occurred, Xu-Xian, a young man who had owned the now altered snake when he was a boy, lives with his two pets, a red panda and an immature giant panda. Bai-Niang and Xu-Xian soon meet and fall in love. Their romance is, unfortunately, cut short when, as a result of events set in motion by the irascible Fa-Hai, a monk fearful of all spirits (including Bai-Niang and her servant), Xu-Xian is deported to a distant province and the two women are forced to vanish. Xu-Xian's pet pandas do not forgot about their master, however, and set out to find him. Meanwhile, Bai-Niang, despite facing numerous hardships, and continuing opposition from Fa-Hai, strives to win the man she loves, even though doing so will force her to forsake her immortality.

Kazuhiko Okabe and Taiji Yabushita's Panda and the Magic Serpent, which was Japan's fist color animated film, certainly has its charming moments and does include a few appealing images. Nonetheless, it is burdened with too much cutesiness, several tiresome characters, a flawed narrative, and a fair amount of clumsy animation. I have, however, only seen the English dubbed version of the film, and, I will concede, many of the faults that I found might not be present in the Japanese language movie. I am, nonetheless, able to review only what I have watched.

The central story the film tells has many engaging elements. Bai-Niang and Xu-Xian's romance is often sweetly, gently developed, and the sorrows both of the lovers subsequently endure, as well as their perseverance when faced with various difficulties, can be affecting. The emotions of the two, their loves, their fears, their sorrows, and their hopes, are sure to touch the viewer. Even the handmaid's struggles to help her mistress, though subordinate to the main story, serving only to further the protagonists' romance, manage to arouse a sympathy for the spunky, loyal girl.

Regrettably, this involving narrative is frequently interrupted with other, less admirable details. A fair part of the movie is devoted to the search conducted by Xu-Xian's pandas for their master, and this is filled with so many treacly characterizations and ludicrous events, including a fight with a gang of animal bullies led by a large, fat, pink pig, that it is invariably grating and diminishes the impact of the central tale. This is not the only intrusion into that story, either. Throughout Panda and the Magic Serpent, a narrator explains everything that happens in painful, pointless detail. He sometimes even describes the events that are actually being shown on the screen. A certain amount of narration would have been helpful, but what is there is frankly burdensome. Just to make matters worse, the narrator ruins the film's songs by translating the lyrics, which he speaks over the singer's voice.

The movie's animation is as uneven as is the story it relates. Many of the backgrounds used, which are often reminiscent of images that can be found in traditional Chinese paintings, are genuinely lovely, sometimes even surprisingly so, but the characters who move around before these are never as appealing. Although Bai-Niang and Xu-Xian are both, for the most part (but not invariably), reasonably well drawn, neither is really impressive. Most of the other characters are far worse. The majority look like they have been lifted from children's animated television programs. They are just awful.

For all its faults, Panda and the Magic Serpent is entertaining. In fact, it is frequently fun, often touching, and occasionally beautiful. It is certainly worth watching.

Review by Keith Allen

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