Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Russian Masterpieces: Short Films from the Top of the World

Visually elaborate?  Possesses a dreamlike quality? Moves at a tranquil pace? It must be a Russian cartoon! 

Several Russian animated productions have been showcased on this blog before, including the work of Yuri Norstein, the ever popular Cheburashka series, and the 1957 film, The Snow Queen. Although the golden years of Soviet era animation are long gone and the former studio giant, Soyuzmultfilm, is plagued with problems, an occasional high profile product still comes out once in a while.

Truly, it's a shame that much of Russia's output from the 1950s through the 1980s is ignored here in the West, no doubt due to tense political misgivings between the country and the United States. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of Russian animation is not propaganda. It covers a wide variety of genres, ranging from family aimed fantasies to complex adult dramas. Most of this animation is highly lyrical in style, is artistically unique, and quite often contains social commentary. Interestingly enough, cartoon television series never really caught on in Russia (save for foreign exports) and animated features became increasingly less common in the second half of the 20th century. Short films were the preferred format, and it has been argued by some that animators living during this period perfected it.

Below, I have complied a list of ten notable (and often overlooked) Russian shorts from over the years with English subtitles. Enjoy! 

1. The Golden Antelope (1954)

This half an hour short practically plays out like a feature film. "The Golden Antelope" is notable for being directed by Lev Atamonov, who was one of the best known and most respected animators in his homeland. He was very active during the second era of Soviet animation. This era strove to reach a sense of 'fairytale realism' in a similar vein to that of Disney. (Later, Russia would begin to distinguish itself from Western cartoons by producing more ethically inspired works.) Unlike Disney, however, Atamonov's films tend to be closer to their source material. They have a crisp, simplified design to them which greatly influenced future anime directors, including Hayao Miyazaki.

"The Golden Antelope" is about an impoverished but kindhearted Indian boy. He helps an antelope escape from a band of hunters lead by a greedy raja. The raja wants to capture the antelope because she produces gold coins whenever she taps her hooves. The golden antelope is so grateful to the boy, that she promises to protect him. The antelope later must journey with the boy to the palace of the raja, after it is discovered that the boy hid her.

At its heart, "The Golden Antelope" is a moral story about the virtues of humbleness and how wealth can corrupt. Indeed, the raja is so selfish, that he initially considers giving the boy a gold coin, but then reconsiders and simply 'lets the boy live'. On the other hand, the boy shows no interest in obtaining riches. He is completely unswayed by the offers made by the raja and his servants. His friendship with the antelope and the compassion he shows to the other jungle animals ultimately is rewarded, whereas the raja almost becomes buried alive in coins, due to his insatiable greed.

2. The Mitten (1967)

After years of working at Soyuzmultfilm, Roman Kachanov, made his first big break with this charming little film. In "The Mitten", a girl desires to have a puppy of her own after watching various people play with their dogs outside on a snowy day. However, her mother is not so keen on the idea. The girl resolves the issue by imagining that her mitten is actually a small red puppy. She even enters her mitten into a dog contest, which results in an interesting turn of events.

This stop-motion short proves that one does not need to use dialogue (or have a high budget) to create something memorable. In fact, the short's simple yet focused plot has much more heart than many of this year's expensive blockbusters do. Its musical score and character interactions easily rival any of the material that Rankin / Bass put out during the same time period.

3. Ballerina on a Boat (1969) 

One of Lev Atamonov's later works, "Ballerina on a Boat" marked a significant departure in the style of Russian animation. As with many countries during the 1960s, Russian animation became increasingly more abstract in style and began dealing with a wider range of topics. The animation is somewhat reminiscent Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline books. Most of the short's characters, particularly the sailors, are drawn in a very boxy, geometrical manner. On the other hand, the titular ballerina is very willowy, weightless, and drawn with fine lines.

As with, "The Mitten", "Ballerina on a Boat" is wordless, but conveys much emotion based upon its classical score and use of body language. The plot revolves around a young ballerina who barely manages to catch a ride on a passenger ship. Once on board, she entertains the ship's captain and crew and makes their work considerably less dull. (There is a running gag of several sailors falling overboard, after failing to mimic the ballerina's movements.) The ballerina is so engrossed with her dancing, that she is seemingly oblivious to all around her. Her actions start to annoy the crew who become concerned about her safety. However, the ballerina later proves her usefulness when she assists the sailors manning the ship in a fierce storm.

4. Winnie the Pooh (1969 -1972, 3 episodes)

Although the Soviet version of Winnie the Pooh is not as well known as the Disney version, it is perhaps the most heartfelt and personal adaptation of the classic childern's story. Fyoder Khitruk, who had previously produced the more adult "The Story of a Crime" (1962) and the satirical "Film, Film, Film" (1968), is a very competent director. He really encouraged his fellow colleges to develop their own unique visuals. This is clearly displayed in his Winnie the Pooh series. The series's backgrounds resemble childern's crayon drawings crossed with traditional folk art. Each character is drawn in a simplified, yet appealing manner.

Although relatively close to his source material, Khitruk took a few liberties, sprinkled with Russian flavor. Winnie the Pooh is not drawn as stuffed doll, but rather as a brown bear. (Khitruk claimed that brown bears were more familiar than teddybears to Russian childern at the time.) Owl is portrayed as female and there is no Christopher Robbin in sight. As the series finished before reaching all of the original book's chapters, Tigger does not appear either. However, the events that take place in the series (such as Winnie trying to steal honey from bees, being 'invited' into Rabbit's house, or trying to cheer up Eeyore) should be immediately recognizable to anybody who has read the books or seen the Disney version. To watch the next two episodes of the series, "Winnie the Pooh Goes Visiting" and "Winnie the Pooh and a Day of Concerns", click on their titles.

5. A Kitten Named Woof (1976- 1982, 5 episodes)

"A Kitten Named Woof" was the last production Lev Atamonov directed before he passed away in 1981. The series's last episode was released posthumously and dedicated in Atamonov's memory. Woof's household adventures usually involve him having to learn about many things, such as why the moon has a reflection and that snow is wet. Being a kitten, Woof is a very curious, albeit quite naive about the world around him.

Woof gave himself his own name because he likes the way it sounds, much to the dismay of a black alley cat. The alley cat acts as Woof's occasional mentor, although he will steal food from Woof and will bully him with little hesitation. Woof must also beware of a grumpy old dog, who hates cats and prefers the company of his bones over anything else. Woof is best friends with a small black and white puppy, Ballon, who bears a striking resemblance to Little Golden Book's The Pocky Little Puppy.

This series is very cute, but manages not to be overly so. This is due to "A Kitten Named Woof" using dialogue in a manner which real childern speak. Unlike some other childern's programs, this one is not taxing for parents to watch with their kids. The series's format is quite unique. Each episode is divided into three short vignettes, each with a self contained story. (Save for the last episode.) The next four episodes can be found here.

6.Vasilissa the Beautiful (1977)

Youtube has removed the English subbed version. A translation can be found here for those curious.

Heavily influenced by the art nouveau illustrator, Ivan Bilibin, "Vasilissa the Beautiful" (director: Vladimir Pekar) harkens back to the older folktale films more commonly made by Soyuzmultfilm twenty years earlier. An old king tells his sons that they must find themselves a bride to marry. Whoever finds the most industrious, kindest  and most beautiful women shall become the next ruler. Each son fires an arrow into an open field. Where ever the arrow lands they shall find a wife. Unfortunately, for the youngest son, Ivan, his arrow is caught by a small, green frog. But the frog is actually a women named Vasilissa, who uses her guise to test Ivan's loyalty.

Quite easily one of the most beautiful shorts ever animated, "Vasilissa the Beautiful's" distinctive visuals are quite unlike any other cartoon ever produced. "Vasilissa's" plot is nothing complex, but it manages to hold its self together due to its clever writing and various references to traditional Russian culture.

7. The Firing Range (1977)

Anatoly Petrov's "The Firing Range" (aka "Polygon") is a powerful anti-war science fiction story about the dangers of going to far with revenge. Quite a lot darker than some of the previous entries on this list, the ten minute film takes place on the African coast. A scientist is meeting there with a military power to showcase his invention, an automatic tank that reacts to hostility and fear. The tank was initially invented to end human conflict. But the scientist is bitter and weary from war, after the loss of his son in combat. He successfully manages to turn the machine on all of the generals and high ranking military officials at the meeting, but ends up losing his own life in turn. The presence of everyone at the meeting is erased, and only the native peoples are left alongside the tank. Their childern play on it, unaware of its terrible capabilities, and thus safe.

Also of note, is "The Firing Range's" unique animation style. It is quite realistic, and in places resembles rotoscoping. The technique is called photographica, which consists of layering two celluloids on each character. Each layer has a specific color scheme that creates the illusion of three dimensional rendering, despite that no CGI is used.

8. The Passage (1988)

Although Vladimir Tarasov directed a few episodes of the relatively accessible and family friendly Nu, Pogodi! cartoons, his more personal work is often quite strange but expertly drawn. His films commonly involved lonely protagonists trying to live the best they can in difficult situations. "The Passage" ("Pereval") is based upon a sci-fi story by acclaimed Russian author Kir Bulychov. It is set on a distant planet where a sole spacecraft crashed sixteen years earlier. The inhabitants of the ship were forced to evacuate do to high radiation levels. Now with few survivors left, three young teenagers who were born on this world (Oleg, Dick, and Mariana) must cross a treacherous mountain pass in order to return to the crash site. They must brave the elements and fight off wild animals, in order to get more supplies and alert Earth of their presence.

While certainly not a perfect film, there is something quite compelling about "Pereval's" freeform strangeness and surreal landscapes. Its limited color scheme, sparse dialogue, and engrossing storyline really draw the viewer into an another reality. The perseverance of the main characters is also quite admirable. Still, one is left to wonder what the short could have been like, if it had managed to squeeze in more details or clarify a few aspects within its half an hour run time.

9. The Old Man and the Sea (1999)

Outside of Yuri Norstein, no Russian director has created such time consuming and technically advanced work as Alexander Petrov. Petrov is one of the few animators in the post-Soviet era to produce a significant body of work. His impressionist paint-on-glass technique has won him numerous awards and his skill is unmatched by the few other filmmakers that utilize the same style. Every individual frame in his films is a piece of artwork within itself.

"The Old Man and the Sea", adapted from the novel of the same name, is Petrov's best known work in the West. The short follows the reminiscences and experiences of an old man named Santiago, who spends much of his time alone in the ocean, usually without catching a thing. Santiago often shares his past experiences with his young apprentice, Mandolin, despite that the boy's parents forbid their child to go out in the ocean. One day, Santiago tries to reel in a large marlin. The fish gets away and Santiago makes it his goal to capture it. "The Old Man and the Sea" moves at a gentle pace, with almost a dreamlike quality. This small Youtube upload does not due the film its proper justice.

10. The Dog Door (2007) 

Youtube has removed the video. It can be watched on Dailymotion here.

"The Dog Door" is easily one of the best (if not the best) production to come out of post-Soviet Russia in recent years. Produced by Animos Studios and directed by Natalia Malgina, it follows the hardships of a small pack of dogs living in a ravine. Proud is the leader of the strays which consists of a puppy, a former pet dachshund, a cranky mutt, and the old schnauzer, Lame. The pack is in search of an object called the dog door, which Lame says will lead them to a better life. Proud manages to befriend a poor artist, and often seeks advice from the comically overweight siamese cat, Yamamoto. But, the wellbeing of the pack is continually disturbed by development, and tractors threaten to fill in the ravine.

"The Dog Door" is often very touching and sweet, but it is quite sad. The short often hints at nostalgia for better times, poverty is seen to be rampant, and problems that modern Russia faces often appear on screen. However, this short also stresses the importance of hope, and how even when things seem the worst, we must continue to live.