It's only been two weeks since I watched the first film, which turned out to be an unforeseen success. Not that I believe it will grow out to be a future animation classic, but it was certainly a lot better than I'd expected going off the promo material. I figured White Snake 2: Green Snake [Bai She 2: Qing She Jie Qi] would offer more of the same with some upgraded visuals, but that's where I was blatantly mistaken. In some ways Green Snake is a logical continuation of the first film, at the same time it's an entirely different beast. And quite a bit better than the first one too.
The first White Snake was a rather typical Chinese folklore fantasy film based on the Green/White snake legend, sporting that plasticky CG look most US animated films seem to prefer. It set itself apart by being more of a straight-forward fantasy adventure, not squarely aimed at younger kids and their accompanying parents. Based on the title of this sequel, I expected the same thing, only with a reversal of the main characters. And for the first five minutes, that's exactly what you're getting. Turns out the aspirations for this sequel were a bit more ambitious than that.
Green Snake doesn't betray its folklore roots, but it mixes them with a serious injection of urban fantasy. Gone are the pristine Chinese mountains, instead Verta is transported to Asura, a city that hangs together by threads and is in constant danger of being demolished and rebuilt. The setting offers a very neat mix of fantasy and post-apocalyptic sci-fi that I really hadn't expected to see. More impressively, Wong and his team absolutely nailed the location and all of its unique lore, which really elevates this sequel from just another basic fantasy to something way more distinct and characteristic.
The plot switches from Blanca to Verta in this second installment. After the two fight a hopeless battle against a power-hungry monk, they are split up. Blanca finds herself locked in a pagoda, while Verta is sent to the realm of Asura, an afterlife where all souls who cling to past grievances end up. Asura is a city inhabited by humans and demons alike. Clans fight for dominance over the city, while recurring disasters keep the population of the city in check. Before Verta can even think of escaping this place, she first must find a way to survive in this barren world.
The art style is a slight update from the first film. Environments and fantastical effects look absolutely majestic, the character models, on the other hand can be a bit static, often lacking the same finish and detail. This classic CG look will never be my personal preference (something that becomes painfully clear during a later segment, which adds some nifty filters for a more paint-like look), technically it's not quite up to par with its US counterparts, but aesthetically Green Snake has reached a point where I really don't mind it anymore. Extra props for some very imaginative character designs (Baoqing is a crazy cool character) and some very creative fantastical creations. Even more props to the camera work and editing, which are very cinematic and add tons to the action scenes.
The soundtrack isn't quite on the same level, though I did notice they made a bigger effort than usual to create music that has an impact of its own. It's not just a selection of tracks that resides in the background and support a specific mood or atmosphere, instead the music regularly gets its own time in the spotlight and actively directs the bigger moments. They're not quite there yet, but they're clearly going in the right direction. As for the dub, since Netflix stepped in for the global release of the film, so an English and French dub are available. Though its urban fantasy elements make this somewhat less of a core Chinese film, the Mandarin dub is more than adequate and feels way more natural than any of its alternatives.
The more films I watch, the more I like the feeling of not really knowing what direction a film will go in. Asura offers a pretty big genre shift that occupies most of the first half of the film, but even then (with the outline of the plot pretty much settled), Green Snake continues to take unexpected turns and add intriguing lore to keep things fresh and exciting. People who prefer their fantasy a bit more cut-and-dried might be overwhelmed, especially when not too familiar with Chinese folklore, but it's hard to fault a fantasy film for being too creative and otherworldly.
White Snake 2: Green Snake feels like a genuine landmark in Chinese animation. It's the first time one of their CG efforts managed to wow me. I do wish they'd try more daring art styles, they clearly have the chops, but for a commercial film like this that's probably asking a bit too much. In the end I didn't really mind too much, as the imaginative designs, the cinematic presentation and the dedication to deliver original lore make this a fantastical adventure that kept me gasping for air until the very end. With this film readily available on the biggest streaming service in the world, there's really no valid excuse not to give it a go.