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Eduard Nazarov, an acclaimed artist, book illustrator, and animation director, passed away yesterday in Moscow. Nazarov, closely associated with Fyodor Khitruk,  was involved in several of his projects, including Winnie the Pooh (1969-1972). In the 1990s, he became one of the co-founders of the SHAR studio, and later supervised a highly successful Mountain of Gems animated series based on folk tales of peoples of Russia.  Nazarov is best-known as the creator of such classics as Once Upon a Dog / Once There Was a Dog (1982), a tragicomic story adopted from Ukrainian folklore about an old dog expelled by his owners, and Travels of an Ant (1983), a small ant’s quest to find his home. His beloved works feature a distinct visual style and combine lyricism with a mellow sense of humor.

Travels of an Ant (Путешествие муравья)

Soyuzmultfilm 1983

While not as widely known in Russia as some other Western children’s authors, like Alan Milne or Astrid Lindgren, Dr. Seuss inspired several cartoons. Cat in the Cap (sic) (Кот в колпаке) is loosely based on The Cat in the Hat, sans Thing 1 and Thing 2 (but still featuring a grouchy Fish). It takes place in a typical urban dwelling where children have to spend a long rainy day alone. The theme of escaping into a land of fantasy from boredom of home or school is rather typical for the Soviet cartoons of the era of Stagnation, so Cat in Hat (Cap), with its protagonist, a safe entertainer who does not forget to clean the room before children’s tired mother returns from work, falls perfectly within the scope of Soviet cartoons of that time.

 

 

Capture 

Cat in the Cap (Kot v kolpake)

Sverdlovsk Film Studio 1984

 

One of the most beloved New Year cartoon is Last Year’s Snow Was Falling (Падал прошлогодний снег) by Alexander Tatarsky. It’s a stop motion claymation loosely based on Russian folktales and featuring such folklore characters as the Fool, the Pike, the Hut on Chicken Legs, and many others. The main character tries to find a proper fir for a New Year celebration in a magic wood. The cartoon is full of absurd humor and became a source of multiple quotes. Tatarstky filmed several popular films in this technique, including Plasticine Crow. He went on to establish Pilot, the first independent Russian animation studios. In his late years he directed Gem Mountain, a brilliant series of cartoons based on folklore of peoples of Russia.

Ekran, 1983

Russian with English subtitles

part 1

part 2

This April marks centennial anniversary of Russian animation.  While recently rediscovered works of Alexander Shiryaev are dated between 1906 and 1909, it was Vladislav (Ladislav) Starevich who presented his first cartoon The Beautiful Leukanida (stop-motion cartoon with animated bugs as “actors”) a century ago, in spring (presumably in April) of 1912. To celebrate this occasion during the recent Open Festival in Suzdal a list of a hundred most acclaimed Russian/Soviet cartoons was created. Once There Was a Dog by prominent animator and educator Eduard Nazarov became the most popular film, followed by equally famous Hedgehog in the Fog by Yuri Norshtein and Winnie the Pooh by Fyodor Khitruk.

Once There Was a Dog (Жил-был пёс, 1982) is a beloved animation story based on Ukrainian folklore about misfortunes of an old dog. If features right combination of humor, ethnic/rural flavor, and themes of loneliness, friendship, and empathy.

Russian, with English subtitles

Beautifully executed cartoon by Oksana Cherkassova, based on the Chukchi legend about a journey of a gosling between the worlds and his meeting with Kutkh, a spirit of Raven.

Бескрылый гусенок (Wingless Gosling), Sverdlovsk studio, 1987.

Russian, with English subtitles

Lubok (Лубок, from луб, bark of linden) is a traditional Russian woodcut print. Originated in Europe, lubok became a popular media in the 17-18th century and could be described as early comics. Usually, lubok prints depicted historical, religious, comical, or fairy tale scenes with some text. Often lubok prints were hand painted. Just like on the Web, one of the most popular characters of lubok was the Cat, usually described as “The Cat of Kazan, the Mind of Astrakhan, the Wisdom of Siberia” that sounded somewhat like title of the Russians tsars (We, by the grace of God, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russians, of Moscow, Kiev, Vladimir, Novgorod, Tsar of Kazan, Tsar of Astrakhan, Tsar of Poland, Tsar of Siberia, etc; The Cat is sometimes considered to be a satire on the Russian tsars and particularly on Peter the Great).

Another popular “comic strip” is a carnival scene of the mice burying the Cat (mentioned in some Russian classic literature including Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter). Some of the mice are labeled with  absurd rhymed inscriptions mentioning their names and occupations. Fantastic inverted world where weak creatures bury the strong enemy was a common for European folk culture, but lubok artists add unique Russian environment. There are various interpretations of such lubok scenes usually mentioning social satire and the skomorokh tradition of wandering actors (Russian version of mummers/harlequins).

18th century lubok “The Mice are burying the Cat”

and its implementation in the cartoon

Brightly, roughly colored grotesque pictures are being rediscovered during the recent decades and inspired several animation shorts. One of the best known is Alexander Guriev’s Cat and Company  (Soyuzmultfilm). Shot during the late perestroyka, this witty cartoon skillfully incorporates bold colors and minimalist style of lubok. The kind-hearted cat does not want to catch mice and dreams about learning to fly (thus becoming free). When he is locked by his mistress, all mice gather to help him by arranging a funeral procession that mimics bombastic funerals of the Soviet leaders during the early 1980s (Brezhnev died in 1982, Andropov in 1984, Chernenko in 1985). Note one of the mice holding a poster depicting the Cat in a suit with numerous medals, satire on Brezhnev and his passion to decorate himself. Alexander Guriev, Кот и компания (Cat and Company), 1990 No knowledge of Russian is required N.B. Modern animation artist Andrey Kuznetsov created a gallery of contemporary lubok interpreting popular movies and cartoons, including Cheburashka (in Russian). Some of them are translated here.

Another short example of Yellow Submarine-style Picasso-inspired animation.

Forgetful Giovanni (Рассеянный Джованни) by Anatoly Petrov and Valery Ugarov, 1986.