Brimming with layers of CG spectacle and inventiveness, 'The Sorcerer and the White Snake' suffers from an over-abundance of such artificial, almost cartoon-like displays. The fantasy fairytale, inspired by the Chinese legend of Madame White Snake, has at its center an amusing and genuinely engaging love story about a snake demon and an herbal physician. The two first meet when the supernatural being takes human female form in order to save the drowning herbalist, and during their intimate kiss, they exchange Vital Essence, which sparks in both of them an unbreakable bond for one another.
This droll and imaginative beginning is sadly brought to a halt when that creature, Susu (Eva Huang), discusses her newfound emotions with another snake demon named Qingqing (Charlene Choi). The conversation is fine, mind you, as it is all part of the greater goal for this love story to unfold and be met with a series of complications. And it definitely doesn't hurt that audiences are allowed to revel in the stunning beauty of these actresses, whose lower halves are the tail-end of a snake and their upper torsos are scantily-dressed female forms. Think exotically gorgeous versions of Medusa without the pesky downside of being turned into stone.
Anyhow, back to the topic — although still along those same lines of the illusion of continuity feeling broken by other shoddy elements. During their conversation, a CG rat, rabbit and a very old turtle suddenly appear (probably on the lam from some other long-forgotten children's fairytale) without explanation (except they might be demons as well) to offer Susu comforting advice. They don't succeed, of course, since she eventually chases after the gullible but cheerful aspiring doctor Xu Xian (Raymond Lam). But back to the awful CG animation because this where the film largely fails and distracts from its far better parts.
The three critters look like the leftover, if not flatt-out rejected, parts of a low-budget, direct-to-video production from the early 2000s, lacking any fine definition compared to the rest of the photography and moving with off-putting cartoon blockiness. If it were just this one anthropomorphic sequence, possibly meant to capture the attention of younger viewers, then we could look past its silliness, but this unfortunately appears to be a continuous interference throughout the whole movie.
Martial arts superstar Jet Li also stars as a Shaolin monk and leader for an ancient order of demon hunters. Li's Abott Fahai, along with his bumbling apprentice Neng Ren (Wen Zhang) who offers little more than comic relief to the plot, travels rural areas like spiritual police. They track wayward demons refusing to stay in their own dimension and imprison them inside the Leifeng Pagoda. Li's presence is always a great addition, providing the story with a dramatic weight that complicates the morality of demon-human love.
But regrettably, he, too, succumbs to the disasters of the appallingly dreadful CG visuals hampering the many otherwise awesome fight sequences. The foreseeable showdown towards the end is nearly laughable in its design even though ideally, it works as a necessary and satisfying conclusion. Like the aforementioned cartoon critters, if this shoddy work in computer animation were more limited to certain short scenes and done in very small doses, 'The Sorcerer and the White Snake' would be more easily forgivable, but as it stands, it's too much of a distraction. And like Li's Fahai overdoing his best intentions, it becomes the film's downfall.
Over the decades, Wuxia cinema has been growing progressively wilder, imaginative and fantastical — with the late 70s, à la 'Master of the Flying Guillotine' and 'Crippled Avengers,' arguably being the most comical period. Lately, however, especially with the genre's rise in popularity and CGI allowing for more creative visuals, the films falling under this category seem to be really pushing the lines of imagination, which can be both worthy pursuit and a movie's detriment. In the case of 'The Sorcerer and the White Snake,' it's a good example of this very issue where inferior CGI impairs an interesting plot. The film suffers the same fate as Neng Ren by slowly transforming into a cartoonish mess.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Magnolia Home Entertainment brings 'The Sorcerer and the White Snake' to Blu-ray on Region A locked, BD25 disc, housed inside a blue, eco-elite keepcase. There is also the option for a two-disc combo pack with Digital Copy made available for fans. At startup, the disc commences with a series of skippable trailers before switching to a main menu screen with full-motion clips and music.
Originally intended for 3D screens, the 'Sorcerer' conjures its magic for American audiences in 2D with this strong but somewhat problematic 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode. The picture displays an extensive array of bold, animated colors which nicely bring the imaginative fantasy tale to life. Primaries, in particular, are luxurious and richly-saturated, but softer pastel hues are also in abundance, adding plenty of warmth and life to the transfer. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the image is highly-detailed with excellent visibility of the tiniest fragment and debris during action sequences. Hair and individual threads in the costumes are plain and distinct while natural facial complexions are terrifically revealing.
Sadly, the high-def presentation is far from perfect, starting with the terrible CGI work throughout. Animated scenes bring resolution down a notch, causing a good deal of softness. Any attempt to look past the CG hack-job still leaves viewers to suffer through noticeably fluctuating contrast levels. Many scenes look splendid and well-balanced with superb clarity, but several others appear faded and dull. Blacks are affected by this constant changing, looking true and accurate one minute but murky and washed-out the next. There's plenty to enjoy, but it's difficult to overlook the many drawbacks.
Doing a bit better but still not fantastic is an enjoyable DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that gets the job done, but it doesn't quite manage to draw the listener into this world of fantasy. Part of the issue starts with the general lack of rear activity, which is not to say discrete effects are ever employed. Rather, the fact that the design actually makes attempts to utilize surrounds, it's a bit of a shame it fails to generate a satisfyingly immersive soundfield. Ambient noises are rather sporadic, feeling forced and easily localized, and unfortunately, action sequences don't do much better.
On the plus side, and where this lossless mix works best, the front soundstage is more consistent with plenty of convincing activity. Imaging feels wide and welcoming, especially when the music swells during certain, mawkish scenes. The mid-range exhibits wonderful, rich clarity in the instrumentation and the many fight sequences. Although back speakers don't add a great deal to these segments, at the least the screen is bursting with lots of life and commotion. The low-end isn't particularly special or noteworthy, but it has its moments of deep, strong bass with a couple good instances that rattle the walls and couch. Overall, it's a good high-rez track fans will very likely enjoy.
Despite an intriguing plot and some highly-imaginative filmmaking, 'The Sorcerer and the White Snake' is sorely hindered by noticeably second-rate CG animation that's continuously distracting. Nonetheless, it offers an amusing enough watch for those who can overlook these negatives. The Blu-ray arrives with good but mildly troubled video quality and the audio presentation is slightly better but still somewhat less than satisfying. A weak collection of supplements makes the overall package into something only a fan could love.