An overzealous application of CGI is the figurative boa constrictor squeezing the life out of “The Sorcerer and the White Snake,” a silly, derivative supernatural-action extravaganza that would have been better at a fraction of its f/x budget. Overblown saga of shape-shifting demons, butt-kicking clerics and the perils of interspecies romance occasionally dazzles but finally frazzles with its relentless visual assault, embedding Jet Li and his capable castmates in one screensaver-ready fantasy backdrop after another. Opening locally Sept. 29, Hong Kong vet Tony Ching Siu-ting’s latest feels pitched at younger sensibilities and won’t cast a spell beyond Asia.
Screenplay (credited to Zhang Tan, Tsan Kan-cheong and Szeto Cheuk-hon) is set in an ancient world where malevolent demons slither undetected among humans. A bat demon has gone on a neck-biting rampage, spurring the powerful sorcerer Fa Hai (Li) and his bumbling sidekick (Wen Zang) to leave their Jinshan Temple base and exorcise the thing before it can wreak havoc at the upcoming Lantern Festival.
On the more benign end of the demon spectrum are the mischievous White Snake (Eva Huang) and Green Snake (Charlene Choi), centuries-old beings who can morph at will into seductive femmes or vicious giant serpents. When White Snake makes the mistake of saving handsome herbalist Xu Xian (Raymond Lam) from drowning, a la “The Little Mermaid,” she becomes smitten with the human, who returns her feelings without knowing what she really is.
Since man-monster miscegenation is a big no-no in this fantasy universe, whose aesthetic at times suggests “The Neverending Story” crossed with a Chinatown parade, Fa Hai makes it his mission to break White Snake’s hold on Xu Xian. Remainder of the pic’s protracted 95 minutes is taken up by a dispiriting number of heroic quests, earnest declarations of love, and battles to see who can leap highest into the air while firing daggers and energy bolts at their enemy.
Squeaky-clean production never considers the more salacious (and interesting) possibilities of a human-snake coupling, appropriately enough for a film whose nonstop eye-candy binge will appeal primarily to kids and young adolescents. As if to cater to its easily distracted target audience, the pic includes an unnecessary number of reaction shots early on, though often edited together in a manner that confusingly suggests the characters in a scene aren’t occupying the same space. The actors, though directed by Ching to emote in a predictably broad manner, come off well enough.
As shiny and new as it looks, “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” mostly borrows from superior sources, never more blatantly than in a subterranean-lake-of-fire setpiece that’s an awfully close copy of the Gandalf-Balrog battle in “The Lord of the Rings.”