As a little boy growing up in Tang Dynasty China, Xu-Xian (voiced by George Matsui) was forced to abandon his beloved pet white snake. Little did he know the magic serpent was really the beautiful princess Bai-Niang (Lisa Lu). Years later Bai-Niang and her faithful fish-turned-handmaiden Xiao-Chin (Miiko Taka) assume human form to set up house in a small town and seek out Xu-Xian. Reunited, the pair fall deeply in love to the delight of Xu-Xian’s clever animal friends Panda (Fernando Tejada) and Mimi (Virginia Blackman), a small red panda often mistakenly referred to as a cat or raccoon in some sourcebooks.
Unfortunately, self-righteous monk Fa-Hai (Marvin Miller) firmly believes humans and spirits should not mix. Determined to save Xu-Xian from what he perceives to be supernatural evil, he banishes the boy to hard labour in a distant city. It’s down to Panda and Mimi to reunite the lovers on an adventure that sees them infiltrate the local animal mafia (yes, really), a journey into outer space to consult the “master of all spirits” and an epic sea battle aided by the mighty Dragon Fish.
Panda and the Magic Serpent was the title bestowed on the 1961 American release of this landmark Toei animation, originally known as Hakujaden. For many years wrongly referred to as Japan’s first animated feature film, possibly to downplay the true recipient of that honour: the fascistic wartime propaganda cartoon Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors (1945), Hakujaden was nevertheless the anime that truly sparked its industry to life. Aside from being the first anime made in colour, the film won honours at the Venice Children’s Film Festival, launched animators Gisaburo Sugii and Taku Sugiyama on their way to significant directing careers, established talented character designer and children’s illustrator Yasuji Mori as the most influential artist of anime’s golden age and left a lasting impression on a young man named Hayao Miyazaki.
The film is an adaptation of Madame White Snake, a much beloved Chinese fairytale that over the years inspired such varied screen versions as a 1956 Toho/Shaw Brothers co-production, a 1963 Shaw Brothers musical remake by renowned auteur Li Han-hsiang, Tsui Hark’s revisionist masterpiece Green Snake (1993) and the borderline avant-garde oddity Phantom of Snake (2000). While Hakujaden’s American release proved a relative disappointment, its success throughout Asia and Europe led Toei Films to produce a string of anime drawn from traditional Japanese folk tales. Films like Magic Boy (1959), The Littlest Warrior (1961), Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (1963) and Alakazam the Great (1960) - co-directed by the legendary Osamu Tezuka - made up the first wave of Japanimation released in the western world.
Many of these were directed by Taiji Yabushita, a talent sadly overlooked in today’s fan circles, who made his films in the Disney mould: breaking well-known fairytales down to a series of visually arresting set-pieces laced with catchy musical numbers and cuddly animal antics. Into the familiar tale of Madame White Snake Yabushita inserts Panda and Mimi, a pair of affable animal heroes who easily steal the show. From the song and dance number where they bounce joyously inside a Taoist temple, to their wild ride atop a flying dragon and their epic punch-up with members of the badass “White Pig Mob”, the movie belongs to this dynamic duo.
Fluid animation wrings emotion from this classic tearjerker to the point where watching Panda and Mimi weep while Xu-Xian is ferried off to jail proves surprisingly affecting. Asian-American actors Lisa Lu and George Matsui add a level of sincerity to the love story in the English dub that features intrusive narration from Marvin Miller, who lent his vocal talents to many a Godzilla film. The delightful visuals, styled after classical Chinese scroll paintings, speak quite eloquently for themselves but Miller narrates almost every frame. Most likely producers had no faith in a western audience being able to follow what is actually quite a simple story.
Yabushita ably counterbalances sentimentality with a lively cosmic battle between Bai-Niang and Fa-Hai, an eerily erotic moment when the snake spirit caresses Xu-Xiang’s sleeping body to the horror of his co-workers, and a beguiling interlude where jugglers, sword-swallowers and other colourful street performers pull off some surreal feats at the town festival. The latter sequence introduces the aforementioned White Pig Mob - a ragtag band including two mischievous weasels (Sara Meric), a wisecracking duck (Jodie McDowell) who sounds just like a certain Disney fowl, a greedy black pig, several impish mice and their gargantuan boss The White Pig, whose impromptu gravel-voiced rock and roll number is flat-out hysterical. Equally hilarious are his strained attempts to get the better of the original kung fu panda who promptly kicks his ass and converts the White Pig Mob into good guys.
Full of zany humour and magical moments, Panda and the Magic Serpent provided this writer with his childhood glimpse into the wonderland of Japanese animation and would likely beguile another generation of kids were someone to give it a much-needed, digitally restored re-release.