Another great animated film by Leonid Shmelkov, My Own Personal Moose (Special Prize at the Berlin Film Festival) – a story about a timid boy named Misha, his childhood dream, and his relationship with his gloomy, short-spoken, but caring father. It’s a film about love, growing up, and a moose Misha hopes to find one day.
Stop motion animation all but ceased to exist during the Stalin-era Disney-inspired animation with extensive use of rotoscope technique. A Cloud in Love, with its eclectic mix of puppets and hand-draw animation, became an aesthetic pivot point for Soviet animation that turned to its avant-garde roots during the Khrushchev Thaw and well the 1960s. Stop-motion animation was usually considered subpar by children but highly valued by critics. Nikolay Serebryakov’s cartoon Ball of Wool is based on a poem by Ovsei Driz, a notable Soviet Jewish poet who wrote in Yiddish and worked primarily for children. Ball of Wool like many of his works was translated into Russian by Genrikh Sapgir, a prominent poet and author of many cartoon scripts, including such classics as Losharik. Serebraykov literally spins this story using a magic ball of wool that an old woman finds in the midst of the winter storm. She starts to knit her small world where soft woven objects are juxtaposed with harsh, edgy features of puppets. A mix of puppet and woven animation create a unique environment of this parable.
The Nativity by Mikhail Aldashin depicts events of the New Testaments in a subtle, delicate way. Naive style inspired by medieval art, muted colors, and characters presented in a childlike manner create an intimate vision of a miracle without traditional pomposity.
One of the earliest Soviet cartoons, Ice rink tells a simple story about a trickster boy in his budyonovka hat (a high top wool hat, part of the Bolshevik uniform during the Civil war) who sneaks into an ice rink and later has to flee from a fat NEPman. NEPman was a businessman during limited freedom of enterprise in the Soviet Union of the 1920s; the NEPmen were a popular target of Communist satire. His top hat and obesity are signs of a capitalist in Soviet iconography. Ice rink is one of the first cartoons featuring work of Ivan Ivanov-Vano, the patriarch of Soviet animation
Poster of agitprop (1921) featuring an evil capitalist in a high hat by one of the leading futurist poets, Vladimir Mayakovsky
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 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.
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.
Cheburashka is a fuzzy creature from several iconic Soviet stop-motion cartoons created by Roman Kachanov, one of the founders of the Soviet stop-motion animation and Leonid Shvartsman, a prominent Soyuzmultfilm art-director. In recent decades, Cheburashka together with his friend, Gena the crocodile gained popularity in Japan. The new Cheburashka movie, a Russian-Japanese project, featuring award-winning animation director Mikhail Aldashin, carefully recreates environment of the classic Soviet cartoons.
Tower Bawher (presumably Bawher is a reading of Башня, bashnia, a tower in Russian) is an animated short by a Canadian animator Theodore Ushev (originally from Bulgaria) made in 2005. It is a unique homage to the avant-garde Russian artistic movement of the 1920s featuring rich visual references to several of the most important Russian Constructivist artists: Klutsis, El Lissitzky, Rodchenko, the Stenberg brothers, Tatlin, Vertov, and others.
Gustav Klutsis, photographer and graphic designer, Let’s Fulfill the Plan of the Great Works
El Lissitzky, graphic designer, and book illustrator, Project of the Affirmation of the New
Alexander Rodchenko, photographer, and graphic designer, captured Lilya Brick, a muse of Vladimir Mayakovsky, the most notable Soviet futurist poet.
Vladimir Tatlin, the project of the Monument to the Third International
The Stenberg brothers. Poster for Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov, filmmaker, animation and montage pioneer
It captures energy and enthusiasm of early Soviet culture thanks not only to the images but also because of the Georgy Sviridov’s acclaimed piece, Time, Forward! written in 1965, three decades after Stalin crushed Russian avant-garde and replaced it with Socialist Realism. During the Thaw (1957-1965), the avant-garde was somewhat rehabilitated. Sviridov’s piece was written for the movie that took place in the early 1930s. Enthusiasm and passion should not obscure the fact that this Tower, symbol of the new world, like Tower of Babel, fails to be completed. This abstract film is an animated constructivist ballet, with an amazing sense of rhythm.