Il'ia Maksimov: Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych (Dobrynia Nikitich i Zmei Gorynych, 2006)

reviewed by Ulrike Hartmann © 2006

The return of the Russian feature-length animation film has been proclaimed since Konstantin Bronzit’s Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei) opened in 2004. For the first time in decades feature-length animation opened with a competitive number of prints in Russian cinemas and brought in almost $1.7 million at the box office. On the basis of this film’s success, the St. Petersburg studio Mel'nitsa started its “3 bogatyria”-trilogy. Based on the Russian tradition of “bylini,” tales of three traditional Russian heroes have been turned into animated films―starting with Bronzit’s Alesha Popovich, followed by Il'ia Maksimov’s Dobrynia Nikitich (2006) and Vladimir Toropchin’s Il'ia Muromets, to be released in 2007.

The second part of the trilogy, Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych, tells the tale of Dobrynia, traditionally seen as the Russian equivalent of St. George, who slayed the dragon Gorynych. His defining features are his incredible bravery and fearlessness. Loosely based on this folkloric view, the film has a different take on the legend and instead tells the story of Dobrynia, who sets out to save Zabava—the niece of the Kievan Prince—who has been abducted by the three-headed dragon Gorynych. Grudgingly, Dobrynia allows Elisei, the Prince’s courier who is madly in love with Zabava, to accompany him. What he does not know is that the Prince himself ordered Gorynych to abduct his niece in order to force her into marriage with the merchant Kolyvan, to whom he is in debt because of his gambling. Naturally, Dobrynia and his young apprentice manage―with the help of a slightly nervous camel―to fight successfully against Kolyvan, Baba Iaga (who is also in debt to Kolyvan), and the Tatar Beket (who speaks with a strangely Georgian-sounding accent). Dobrynia brings Zabava home to the Kievan Court, where she marries Elisei. Dobrynia and the dragon resurrect their friendship, which suffered from the dragon’s betrayal, and they live happily ever after…

Considering the film’s position as the middle part of a trilogy, one question is inevitable: is it better or worse than the first film? From a purely commercial point of view, it must be said that Dobrynia Nikitich has been even more successful than Alesha Popovich. Both films were produced by Mel'nitsa in cooperation with CTB Film Company on a tight budget of approximately $1.5 million each; by comparison, the budget of Pixar’s latest film, Cars (John Lasseter and Joe Ranft, 2006), was estimated at $140 million. Dobrynia opened with even more prints than its predecessor (200 for Alesha Popovich, 279 for Dobrynia) and grossed $3,468,423 within four weeks of opening in the spring of 2006, doubling Alesha’s box office take. This, however, does not take into consideration the money made through merchandising, video games, ring tones, or licensing fees. Interestingly enough, Mel'nitsa sold rights to Teremok, the popular St. Petersburg fast-food chain, to use mosaics depicting the main characters in Alesha Popovich, an agreement that Teremok is reported to be interested in maintaining with the second film. From a commercial point of view, it can certainly be said that Dobrynia is the most successful domestic Russian animated feature-film to date. [1] While Russian animation, at the moment, is still unable to compete on the international market, by modelling characters and graphics to Western standards, the industry is taking steps in this direction. The Asian market especially seems to hold new prospects for (quality) Russian animation films.

Despite its commercial success, however, the film’s plot and characters fall short of Alesha Popovich, which was a genuine novelty―charming, entertaining, and introducing a type of film that is was unknown to Russian cinema: the animated family film. As one Russian film critic put it: “a film I can take my children to see and won’t die of boredom myself” (Solntseva). By providing a straightforward plot line, genuinely likeable and funny characters, as well as a multitude of parodies and quotes, Alesha Popovich was entertaining for both young and adult audiences.

But this is only partly true of Dobrynia Nikitich, which was also advertised as a “heroic blockbuster.” Despite the film’s title, Dobrynia does not appear as the film’s main character because the plot revolves around Zabava and Elisei’s love story. None of the random secondary characters (for example, Baba Iaga or the camel) is as likeable and funny as Tikhon or Babulia in the first film or Alesha’s his highly entertaining talking horse, Iuli (blatantly modelled on Eddie Murphy’s hilarious donkey in Shrek [Andrew Adamson and Vicky Jensen, 2001] and Shrek 2 [Andrew Adamson, Kelly Asbury, and Conrad Vernon, 2004]). What all of the characters in Dobrynia lack is character: apart from the dragon’s guilt and remorse, none of them shows any kind of development or change. Not even the Prince, who was obviously selling his niece to the merchant, had to undergo any punishment or experience any transformation.

The most interesting character of the lot is certainly Dobrynia himself. Compared to most other heroes, such as Alesha Popovich or Il'ia Muromets, he not a solitary young man without any commitments; he is a “husband”—“ne mal'chik, no muzh” (Shervud). Having to find a compromise between his domestic and marital commitments and his heroic exploits, he is faced with several challenges, mostly voiced by his wife (a feisty lady who wears a 46-size dress, as we will find out during the course of the film). Dobrynia is clearly based on Arnold Schwarzengger’s and Dolph Lundgren’s action heroes, and generally “works on his own” (“Ia rabotaiu odin”). His classic virtues are wit and cleverness in speech; his catchphrase is “Am I making myself clear?” (“Ia poniatno ob"iasniaiu?”). Elisei’s inability to wake Dobrynia up when he is fast asleep guarantees a few funny moments, but these are destroyed by the weird techno-style music that accompanies these scenes. Although Dobrynia is superior to Alesha in wit and bravery, he lacks the latter’s natural likeability. And since Dobrynia is the film’s primary character, his soullessness is extremely disappointing.

This lack of likeable or distinctive features applies to the other characters as well. Zabava is by no means as feisty or as tart-tongued as her counterpart Liubava, who amusingly accused Alesha of being commitment-phobic. The Prince’s niece, while not helpless or in need of being rescued, does not play a large enough role in this film. None of the secondary characters—be it Elisei, the camel, or the Tartar Beket—show any distinctive character traits or do anything to provide entertainment, apart from the dragon Gorynych. Despite being slightly scary (he is a dragon, after all), his three-headed confusion—“Actually, we’re sick. That is, I’m sick.” (“Voobshche-to, my bolen. To est', ia bol'nyi”)—and his inability to fly without major panic attacks, make Gorynych the only likeable and thoroughly entertaining character for both children and adults.

The film’s villains, the Prince and the Merchant Kolyvan, supported by Baba Iaga, provide neither fun nor fear. The Prince, voiced by Sergei Makovetskii, is a despicable uncle and guardian to his niece. And yet, despite the fact that he treats his niece like chattel, employs Gorynych to abduct her, and lies to Dobrynia and Elisei, he is still depicted for the most part as a likeable and charming character. A more prominent villain would have supported the weak storyline in a more entertaining way and would have provided a counter-balance to Dobrynia’s undeniable virtues.

The Merchant can be seen as a stereotype of the “new Russian villain.” Overweight and despicable (both outside and inside), his actions are solely influenced by either greed or the desire to have a beautiful young bride. Blackmailing Baba Iaga (who is strangely likeable and more like a friendly granny than an evil witch, and whose connection with this story is not quite clear), Kolyvan seeks to force Zabava to marry him and tries to get rid of Dobrynia, Elisei, and Gorynych, who unite to fight him. Yet, considering that he is the film’s main villain, he is not prominent enough as an evil character.

All these characters are linked together via a plot that is more than weak at times. For a family film to be successful, a strong story line is not necessarily required, but a more straight-forward one would have proved beneficial for this film. In commercially successful and critically acclaimed family films, such as Shrek, the plot does not have to provide many (if any!) twists, surprises, or dramatic turns as long as the characters are likeable and funny and the film is told in an entertaining way. This cannot be said of Dobrynia Nikitich. While there are a lot of allusions to or parodies of other films that are potentially entertaining for the adult audience—a number of parodies of the Matrix series (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999 and 2003); quotes from Brother (Brat; dir. Aleksei Balabanov, 1997) and The Meeting Place Cannot be Changed (Mesto vstrechi izmenit' nel'zia; dir. Stanislav Govorukhin, 1979); the action heroes mentioned above—these alone cannot save a weak storyline. Children focus more on plot and characters.

Some of the comedic attempts are more disturbing than funny. One scene in particular is more weird and awkward than entertaining and fun: three ladies of the court sing a song about Zabava and young love, but do so in a rather strange, techno-style fashion, manically singing and dancing. While this bears a resemblance to performances by groups such as VIA-GRA or Fabrika, it is extremely misplaced and lacks any connection to the rest of the film. This example illustrates a crucial point: despite its modest budget, this film is, if anything, trying too hard.

The ease with which Konstantin Bronzit charmed his audience in Alesha Popovich is completely lost on Il'a Maksimov. Having studied with Fedor Khitruk and Eduard Narozov, two grand masters of Russian animation, and having earned his first merits working for the legendary Karusel',[2] Bronzit knows how to turn any character into a lively and—most of all—likeable creature, full of wit and humor, who delivers most of his lines with a nod and wink to the grown-up audience. By contrast, Maksimov, who worked as an architect and illustrator before joining Mel'nitsa in 1997 and directing A Dwarf Named Nose (Karlik Nos, 2003), the studio’s first ever feature film, seems to lack this ease and effortlessness. Not only do the characters fail to convince, but so do the graphics.

Although clearly modelled on Pixar and Disney productions (albeit in an entirely different league in terms of financing and studio support), the film’s graphics seem simple—not in a charming, but in a dull way. There are almost no “special effects” to enhance the drawn animation. Despite its references to both Western and classic Russian animation—for example, Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s Once Upon a Time (V nekotorom tsarstve, 1957) or Garri Bardin’s The Flying Ship (Letuchii korabl', 1979)—Dobrynia Nikitich fails in quality and aspiration.

Apart from its commercial success, there is nothing innovative about this film, which merely continues a style and story that was started in Alesha Popovich. No audience will be unable to engage fully in the action, provoking a sense of merely “watching from the sidelines.” The film seems somewhat soulless and the novelty factor of Alesha Popovich has certainly worn off. As Laura Pontieri Hlavacek has pointed out in her review of The Nutcracker, this is partially caused by most Russian directors’ lack of experience in feature-length animation films, which certainly holds true for Maksimov. At the same time, it has become apparent, that Mel'nitsa’s “3 bogatyria”-trilogy is not being produced with critical acclaim in mind, but is more or less focused solely on commercial success.

Despite all this criticism, the film is certainly watch-able, especially by a young audience, and has its moments of fun and humor. The sheer fact that feature-length Russian animation is enjoying a comeback should be appreciated. Yet, this newly resurrected form has not reached its full glory and will have to balance commercial and artistic aspirations in future endeavours. In conclusion, there is no doubt that this film has been a major commercial success and will doubtlessly be followed, if not exceeded by, the third film of the trilogy. The lack of competition virtually guarantees this..

Ulrike Hartmann
University of Bristol


Works Cited

Pontieri Hlavacek, Laura. Review of Tat'iana Il'ina’s The Nutcracker. KinoKultura 9 (July 2005)
Shervud, Ol'ga. “Dobrynia Nikitich i Zmei Gorynych: ne tol'ko Zabava.” Iuga (13 March 2006)
Solntseva, Alena. “V ozhidanii glavnogo bogatyria.” Vremia Novostei (15 March 2006)


Notes

1] Since this review deals only with domestically produced animation films, international co-operations such as The Nutcracker (Shchelkunchik; dir. Tat'iana Il'ina, Natasha Mal'gina, Aleksei Shelmanov, and Valerii Ugarov; Russia and Germany, 2004) are not taken into consideration.

2] Veselaia Karusel' (translated as either Merry-go-round or The Jolly Roundabout) was a series of animation shorts that was started in 1969 and continued until 2000.


Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych, Russia, 2006
Color, 65 minutes
Director: Il'ia Maksimov
Screenplay: Maksim Sveshnikov, Aleksandr Boiarskii, Il'ia Maksimov
Design: Olga Ovinnikova
Music: Valentin Vasenkov
Voices: Valerii solov'ev, Iurii Tarasov, Sergei Makovetskii, Andrei Tolubeev, Ekaterina Gorokhovskaia.
Producers: Sergei Sel'ianov, Aleksandr Boiarskii
Production: CTB, Mel'nitsa.

Il'ia Maksimov: Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych (Dobrynia Nikitich i Zmei Gorynych, 2006)

reviewed by Ulrike Hartmann © 2006

Updated: 04 Oct 06