the Magic Serpent (1958)
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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