Panda and the Magic Serpent
Mike Toole rates it:
Panda and the Magic Serpent is a first, both in Japan and in the west. It's an exceptional and very significant piece of Japan's cinematic history because, as the box notes with unexpected wisdom, it was the first full-color animated feature film created in Japan, vintage 1958. (Japan's first-ever animated feature film, 1945's panicked, jingoistic Momotaro's Holy Warriors of the Sea, was a black and white joint.) Toei specifically launched an animated features division to compete with the lavish, ambitious fare from Disney, and Panda and the Magic Serpent (original title: Hajuka-den, or Legend of the White Serpent) was the first film to see release as a result of this endeavor. It's not technically the first anime to be dubbed and released in North America-- that honor goes to MGM's Magic Boy, another adaptation of an early Toei film-- but it was released just weeks later, and is among the first three pieces of anime to have release in the west, with Alakazam the Great rounding the trio out.
The story of the movie is a pleasingly simple fairy tale. Xu Xiang is a lonely young man, with only his pet pandas-- Panda, a black and white panda, and Mimi, a red panda-- to keep him company. He spent his childhood days playing with a snake in the woods, but little does he know that that snake was transformed by a magical storm into the beautiful and mysterious Bai Niang. The two eventually meet and fall in love, but their meeting is observed by the powerful wizard Fa Hai. Fai Hai is confused by Bai Niang's magical nature, and believes her to be a vampire, so he banishes Xu Xiang to hard labor in a faraway town, believing he is protecting the boy.
While Xu Xiang toils obliviously, it's up to the loyal Panda and Mimi to rustle up a resourceful all-animal street gang, join forces with Bai Niang's good-natured retainer Xiao Ching, and launch an all-out attack on the misguided wizard to preserve their friends' romance. Along the way, there's plenty of musical numbers, every single one of them untranslated. Narrator Marvin Miller (described by an IMDB reader as "the somber voice of the 60s..." man, I really can't put it any better than that) occasionally pipes in to provide spoken translation in his stentorian voice, which is especially awkward and hilarious during a love song that Bai Niang sings for Xiu Xiang. There are action sequences, culminating in a really fantastic final battle that involves Xiao Ching turning the creatures of the ocean against the wizard, while the pandas attempt a fast-paced beach landing. And of course, since it's a family-friendly fairy tale, everyone pretty much lives happily ever after.
For me, the best thing about Panda and the Magic Serpent is in simply observing this shining example of the way anime developed in the strange, brief era before Tezuka and before the stereotypical big-eye/small-mouth look came into fashion. The movie has a lovely, lush, unique look; it comes off like a cross between ukiyo-e and an old UPA cartoon like Gerald McBoing Boing. (This is not helped by the fact that Marvin Miller also narrated McBoingBoing.) Artistically, it has tremendous merit-- the animation is smooth and gorgeous, the background scenery lush and vivid, the characters striking and lively. While some subsequent Toei outings would bear passing similarities (Magic Boy and 1961's The Littlest Warrior, to name a couple), this is the blueprint. The entire anime medium as we know it really got jump-started here, courtesy of director Taiji Yabushita (who'd direct several films through the 60s) and his staff.
As for the condition of the movie on this DVD, it's pretty darned miserable. I have an old "public domain" VHS copy that appears to be struck from the same print-- it's full of dust, hair, clumsy splices, and is missing an entire swath of the opening credits sequence. Like the Hans Christian Andersen film I reviewed a few weeks ago, Panda is in the public domain largely by virtue of the fact that there's nobody out there to claim the rights of the film. Original distributor Globe are long gone, and Toei doesn't seem to care about something so far back in their back catalog. It's a little unfortunately, because Panda and the Magic Serpent is a treasure of a film, and it's really too bad that it's been permitted to slip so far into obscurity.
Brush aside any complaints about video quality, or lack of the Japanese version; this is a worthy film. Go forth and seek out Panda and the Magic Serpent, and introduce yourself to the genesis of modern Japanese animation. I'll even grit my teeth and tell you to look for it at Wal-Mart, who've been selling it for a measly dollar. That's right, ONE DOLLAR. No excuses, folks, you need to see this movie.
Added: Monday, July 04, 2005
Related Link: Digiview Productions