Russian Trickster Emelya: In a Certain Kingdom 1957

Russian folktales were often adapted for animated films, and for many Russians cartoons, together with folktales are the first introduction to folklore. The folklore characters went through several stages, from comparatively straightforward transformations in some early films to didactic Socialist Realist versions in the late Stalin era, to artistic masterpieces of the 1960-1970s, when folklore-based cartoons fused modernity and tradition and obtained “doublespeak” allusions. The trickster is one of the most appealing characters for animation. The trickster creates comic situations, brings innovation, and is often associated with satirizing norms and customs. The Russian trickster is the fool (durak). The fool in Russian medieval culture was a clever revealer of truth, eccentric in clothing, speech, and behavior. In Russian culture, the trickster figure blends several characters that were historically connected: the Holy fool (iurodivyi), the Harlequin/Wandering Minstrel (skomorokh), and the Outlaw (e.g. the thief, Cossack, or the peddler).

Emelya and the pike

The story about Emelya the fool and the magic pike is among the most well-known. In Russia, Emelya is depicted in figurines, paintings, illustrations, and sometimes is seen as a symbol of Russia, slow to saddle up, but rides fast. In the folktale, Emelya is the third son, unmarried, untidy, lazy, and his only motivation to do something is the promise of a red kaftan (overcoat). In the folktale, Emelya catches the magic pike and who gives him a magic ability to fulfill his wishes. Most famously, lazy Emelya who spends most of his time on a warm massive Russian stove, wishes for the stove to give him a ride.  In the folktale-based animated film In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957 (directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano, screenplay by Nikolai Erdman) Emelya is significantly different. He is not a lazy lad, but he is shown quite capable of working. Emelya is also kinder: he lets the pike go without asking anything and the pike rewards him. He is quite peaceful until his motherland is threatened by foreigners.

Emelya

Emelya on his self-propelled stove. The Tsar is hiding from invading foreigners

Figures of pretentious westerners are among the main contemporary features of the film. The generic foreign prince who courts the Russian princess is shown in 18th-19th-century European dress. Presumably, he is a French prince who barely speaks Russian and wants to marry Maria, the daughter of the tsar. The foreign prince is shown as a tall figure with unnaturally sharp features reminiscent of a rooster (possibly another hint at his French origin). He is extremely effeminate, constantly powdering his face, looking at a pocket mirror. Princesses Maria does not mind his courtship (approved by her father) until Emelya sees her portrait and wishes her to fall in love with him. When the foreign prince is rejected by Maria, he launches an invasion. The image of foreign grenadiers marching in the snow reminds us not only of Napoleon but also of the recent German invasion. The tsar’s troops are defeated despite their general’s comic appeal: “They [foreigners] gave our tsar the fig, let’s all die for him!”, and only the trickster, becoming patriotic when he sees the destruction the invaders are causing, is able to save his native land by making a magic broom to wipe out the enemy.

SoldiersForeign invaders

Emelya is depicted in a humane fashion, with normal physical appearances. In contrast, the Russian court is shown in a somewhat comical way: the tsar is short, bearded, and single toothed; his worthless general is shown with cartoonish whiskers. As a result of Emelya’s victory, the tsar loses his crown and flees abroad, while Emelya marries princess Maria and rides the stove home with her. Thus, in sharp contrast with the folktale, Emelya in this cartoon embodies the ideal of the Russian nation: he is witty and kind, able to work and play, he is not aggressive, but he can defend himself if bothered by foreigners or the tsar and his government. Foreign enemies are always ready to invade Russia, but they cannot defeat her people. The parts of the folktale that shows Emelya’s weakness and passivity are completely omitted. In the film, Emelya is a smart peasant, salt of the earth, and he does not need the pike’s magic to become a handsome and clever prince.

 princeClumsy and effeminate European prince

In a Certain Kingdom (V nekotorom tzarstve), 1957

Ivan Ivanov-Vano

Russian

 

 

Russian with English subtitles

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xv5lua_once-upon-a-time-1957-v-nekotorom-tsarstve-english-subtitled-russian-animation_shortfilms

2 comments
  1. BLANC françois said:

    hello,
    *
    I had got a russian cartoon DVD given to me many hears ago ,unfortunately I dont understand russian but I was amazed in the selection by a cartoon of 1949 in color putting in scene two kids in traditional garments saying good bye to their old parents in carriage going in town apparently. the kids a boy and an girl begin to play calmly until their parents come back but some great white swans appeared from the ski kidnapping the little boy bringing him to a sorceress BABAYAGA( I presume )The little girl meet a spirit in the forest a female spirit in a tree who gives her piece of information about the sorceress, and she meets too the spirit of water in the river , who gives her the same thing, and she gets help from a living bakery to get back his brother.i’ve got some snapshots by VLC But i can’t give them to you if you don’t give me a mail.my question is what is this story , a legend ? and what studio and artists made this cartoon,with very realistic characters, has this studio made other cartoons before and after that ? there was in the selection the cartoon of the young russian in 1957 who fell in love with a russian princess and get rid of a ridiculous french consort . it was good but not as realistic as the first one that pleased me more. and I search now this kind of realistic and fairytalish cartoons in the same time. Many Thanks in advance for anyone who can help me .

  2. Hi Blanc,
    Glad you like Russian animation. Your description matches Gusi-Lebedi (the Magic Swan Geese), a 1949 cartoon based on a traditional Russian folk tale https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fkClG0Nj6ec The plot is somewhat close to German Hänsel und Gretel. It was filmed by one of the creators of the Soviet animation, Ivanov-Vano. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivan_Ivanov-Vano His assistant was Alexandra Snezhko-Blotskaya who became a prominent animation director in her own right. Soviet animation of the 1940s-50s was very realistic due to the use of rotoscoping technique when live actors were filmed first and traced by animators. Not sure about the second one – send some screenshots.

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