Historically-wise, Panda and the Magic Serpent is the first color Japanese animated film and despite the turmoil of the era it was made in, it actually stood firm in its classical take on a children’s story. They style of animation is still pre-Osamu, so the characters indeed look Asian and not big round eyed Europeans as they will do later. Also, it has nothing to do with technology or the army, a thing quite uncommon for those times, when war propaganda and the sudden industrialization were taking over the once innocent folklore traditions. The movie is not dark or too violent as pretty much all animated features during and after WW2 were and you get the feeling it didn’t let the winds of change to mutate its version of an uncommon love.
The story is sort of like Romeo and Juliet, with a human man and a snake spirit girl falling in love and facing the disfavor of their separate worlds. They need to overcome the harsh challenges they impose to them in a way to prove that their love is not fleeing but true. It is a classic story of love and prejudice.
The plot however is one big mess and I really wonder if kids will even get half of what is going on. You see Xu Xian, the human in the story, has a very weak presence over what is going on. Most of the action is done by his panda pets and the spirit assistant of Bai Niang, the snake girl. It is hard to see how exactly they are proving their love when somebody else is doing most of the work. Also, the storyboard is chaotic at times as you just don’t seem to understand the objective or even the line of thought of what is going on in general. This is partly because there are no actual villains in the story as to identify the root of the problem. The wizard who messes with them is just doing what he thinks is best for both of them and is not some generic megalomaniac. Also, new elements are constantly introduced to the story, such as the quest for a healing flower or a gang of animals, and even the main romance needs its time to be presented instead of being set from the start. All that are presented too fast and sporadic for a movie format and the chaotic storyboard makes it hard to understand or even to sympathize with the events.
The animation and the music are very well done for their time, as there is a lot of effort given to make the characters move lively, even if to the most part they look like they are shadow theater puppets. The music is also making you feel you are watching a musical, as most of the plot is actually done without much dialogue and leaves the motion and the dancing to do all the explaining. Voice acting on the other hand is very relaxed and it doesn’t feel like the voice actors were passionate enough for what they were doing. Also… there were only two of them. All the characters are literally voiced by just a man and a woman and not the best of people who can change ten pinches each. It is better to see the whole movie as indeed a shadow theater play since the characters move mostly as such and are voiced by only a pair of people, just like what is done in such shows.
The movie is interesting to watch for several reasons, if not historical or nostalgic, then just to see how weird a story feels when it is not following the formulas. Recommended albeit with caution not to expect some masterpiece.
And now for some excused scorings.
ART SECTION: 6/10
General Artwork 2/2 (good for its time)
Character Figures 1/2 (generic)
Backgrounds 1/2 (basic)
Animation 1/2 (basic)
Visual Effects 1/2 (basic)
SOUND SECTION: 5/10
Voice Acting 1/3 (poor)
Music Themes 2/4 (typical)
Sound Effects 2/3 (ok I guess)
STORY SECTION: 3/10
Premise 1/2 (typical)
Pacing 0/2 (messy)
Complexity 1/2 (not much)
Plausibility 0/2 (none)
Conclusion 1/2 (cheesy)
CHARACTER SECTION: 5/10
Presence 1/2 (generic)
Personality 1/2 (typical)
Backdrop 1/2 (generic)
Development 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
Catharsis 1/2 (overblown but it’s there)
VALUE SECTION: 3/10
Historical Value 1/3 (first colour film so it has some value)
Rewatchability 0/3 (too basic to bother watching again)
Memorability 2/4 (some artsy moments make it somewhat memorable but nothing great in overall)
ENJOYMENT SECTION: 1/10
Art 1/1 (looks cute for its age)
Sound 0/2 (sounds meh)
Story 0/3 (generic and messy)
Characters 0/4 (stereotypes)