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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

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

Nothing creates a holiday spirit better than the Nutcracker. This version of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story is combined with Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s famous ballets, the Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake. It was produced in 1973 by Boris Stepantsev, one of the prominent Soviet animators who among other films created a famous Russian version of Karlsson-on-the-Roof based on stories of Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren.

The plot is slightly changed, and the protagonist of the film is not Marie from the original Hoffmann’s story, a seven-year girl from a middle-class family, but a young maid who helps the enchanted Nutcracker to break a spell and become a prince again.

There are no dialogues, and this animated ballet does not require knowledge of Russian language to enjoy.

Olga Khodatayeva (1894-1968) was one of the first women in Soviet animation. She mastered fine arts in Moscow, worked as an illustrator, and joined the industry in 1924. She worked in Sovkino (later Mosfilm) and since 1936 she was employed as an animation director by Soyuzmultfilm, the biggest Soviet animation studio established in the same year by Stalin.

In 1928 Olga Khodatayeva produced a silent animation short Samoyed Boy (Самоедский мальчик), an anti-religious propaganda aimed at shamans of Nenets people, natives of the north of Russia. Her background in painting helped her to create much more polished animation than Vertov’s.

During her career, she managed to produce over 20 animation films. Among them are Disney style Tom Thumb (black and white, sound, 1938)

and highly praised beautifully executed A Fire Glowing in Yaranga (color, sound, 1956) based on the folk tales of the native peoples of the Russian north.

Awards: Venice Film Festival, 1956.

Notice that both films the adaptations of folk tales, typical for the socialistic realism period of Soviet animation (1930s-1950s).

Sergey Kozlov, an acclaimed children’s author from Moscow, Russia, passed away at the age of 70. He was well-known for the script he created for the Yuriy Norshteyn’s masterpiece Hedgehog in the Fog.  Sergey Kozlov created scripts for more than a dozen of Soviet and Russian cartoons. He began his career as a poet and later published several popular children’s books. RIP

Hedgehog in the Fog 1975

Strange Vat 1983