Issue 23 (2009)

Valerii Ugarov: Babka Ezhka and Co. (Babka Ezhka i drugie, 2006),

Nikolai Titov, Oktiabrina Potapova: The New Adventures of Babka Ezhka (Novye prikliucheniia Babki Ezhki, 2008)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris © 2009

 

The final two feature-length animations of Valerii Ugarov's long and fruitful career were released only after his death in November 2007. The first film was shown in early 2008 on 140 screens, making back only about half of its budget of over a million dollars, though it is unclear whether the stated budget was for the first film alone, or included the costs of the sequel too. The second, released in September 2008, was put together after the director's death and differs somewhat both in visual style and character from the original. At over 70 minutes each, both films illustrate Russian animators' continuing search for a longer animated form that appeals to both adults and children.

The first film seeks to reintroduce children and adults alike to Russian folklore in an engaging and endearing way. This is done by turning both the characters and plots of fairytale and folk mythology upside-down; demons become warm and fluffy, Koshchei the Immortal is a genteel grandfather figure, Emelya-the-fool fails to return the magic pike to the ice-hole, keeping it in his locomotive stove instead. Children and adults alike are supposed to be charmed with the cuddly new-found friends of the feisty orphaned heroine, whose name, Babka Ezhka, is the diminutive form of her adoptive grandmother's—Baba Yaga; the adults are supposed to be provoked into reconsidering and appreciating the rich tapestry of Russian folklore by the revisiting of various legends and tales from a fresh perspective. This process is by turns charming with its painstaking attention to detail, darkly atmospheric, and both saccharine and slightly didactic, with a plot that even adults will struggle to follow.

The second film revisits the same characters in a portmanteau of disconnected stories, also related to fairy-tale and legend. However, this time there is much more slapstick action and humor, somewhat at the expense of the charm and the impressive visual tapestry that endeared audiences to the first film. It also attempts much more of a knowing adult humor that references popular culture and contemporary society.

Ugarov worked as an animator from the second half of the 1960s until his death, contributing to the feature-length cartoon Maugli in 1967 and the Jolly Carousel (Veselaia karusel') cartoon miscellany that began in 1969. At times he was able to produce an unconventional, highly abstracted colourful style, in Absent Minded Giovanni (Raseiannyi Dzhovanni, 1969) and The Casket with a Secret (Shkatulka s sekretom 1976), the latter strongly recalling the look of Yellow Submarine (George Dunning 1968). Other early work, notably his directorial debut Havoc (Razgrom 1971), produced with Eduard Uspenskii, was noted for its humorous combination of a naturalistic depiction of Soviet realia and anarchic flights of fancy: a memorable scene in his second contribution as an animator to Jolly Carousel features a hippo eating a piano within a meticulously observed Soviet apartment as two children sitting in a spinning toploader washer-dryer look on. As an animator he also contributed to some of the best-loved Soviet animations including Nu, pogodi! and Fedor Khitruk's Winnie the Pooh Goes Visiting (Vinni-pukh idet v gosti, 1971)

His later work as a director, some of which was made in joint production with German and British film companies, often found its source in the mythology or folktales of various cultures including The Quest for Olwen 1990 (with BBC Wales), The Magic Paintbrush (Volshebnaia kistochka, 1997), a joint UK-Russia production made for UNESCO, and The Shepherd boy Tumur (Mal'chik-pastukh Tumur, 2001). A number of his films won international awards.

Babka Ezhka and Co. begins with a stork delivering a baby to its parents in the snowy winter forest. It is attacked by a hawk and drops the child who is then discovered by Baba Yaga, the ambivalent witch-like antagonist of Ivanushka and Vasilissa the Fair in Russian folk tales. In turn we are introduced to her entourage—Kikimora the swamp spirit, Leshii the wood demon, Vodianoi the water sprit and Koshchei the Deathless—as they discuss what to do with the child. Kikimora objects to Koshchei adopting the foundling—a flashforward ensues to a potential future scene illustrating her reservations: Koshchei junior, sporting a green Mohican, is killed by a passing Ivanushka, who sucks out the egg containing the needle, where as everybody knows, Koshchei's soul resides. This debate serves then to ‘remind' viewers of the traditional roles and plots of folkloric narrative usually attached to these figures.

Clearly there is, albeit playfully, a didactic element to the narrative that assumes that at least part of the audience will not know its fairytale ‘ABCs'. Another element of this slightly educative feel is the inventive use of a framing narrator—a raven voiced by Armen Dzhigarkhanian. The narrator pauses the action throughout the first half of the film for a ‘show and tell' about each of the characters. Thus we learn that Baba Yaga's hut (and yes, the hut itself appears as a fairly rounded character), runs faster on its chicken legs than a horse. Everyone, we're told, is envious of such accommodation! [zhilploshchad']'.

Babka Ezhka is promptly adopted by Baba Yaga and grows up in the bosom of love and protection afforded by her cuddly demons. The child-friendly visualization of figures who would normally be considered evil spirits is one of the striking successes of this film and something the chief artist, Marina Leskova, has clearly worked very hard at. The voice work for Kikimora and Baba Yaga, (Tat'iana Bondarenko), and Koshchei, (Aleksei Kolgan) is astonishingly rich and modulated, quite unusual for an animation aimed at younger children. The result is a vivid realization of these demons and spirits as positive characters.

However, the intensity of this realization, in relation not only to the voice work, but also to the complexity of the dialogue itself and plot, raises a number of questions about who the animators thought would most appreciate the film. Only the youngest of children will be satisfied to look at the pretty pictures and not worry about plot, but even then they are not going to sit through 70 minutes, and may well be terrified by some of the film's darker scenes. Older children, as is shown from anecdotal feedback on various websites, were quickly bored by a film whose characters were difficult to understand - and whose plot moved at a snail's pace for the first 20 minutes and was then nearly incomprehensible.

Babka grows into a toothy, red-headed preteen and is tasked with making a ‘human' wish to the magic fern flower of Slavic mythology that blooms once every 30 years on the eve of St John's Day, guarded by Baba Yaga and the others. Her quest takes her on a journey where, unversed in folklore, she interferes in a number of fairytales' plots, thus preventing their closure.

Before she and her faithful owl Filimon can defeat the Serpent Gorynych, who has killed her friends and destroyed the forest (having stolen the flower), she must cross the Kalinov Bridge dividing the world of the living from the dead—and right the wrongs she has caused in the fairy tales. Only in doing this can she defeat Gorynych, thus saving her friends. During their final confrontation, which takes place in a gigantic oak tree encircled by a golden chain à la Pushkin and contains treasures of Tolkienian proportions, Babka sets Gorynych three riddles which he fails to answer correctly. Riddles such as: ‘What neither burns in fire, nor drowns in water, nor in the earth will rot?' (Truth), and ‘Without a rope, without a chain I can bind people' (‘A promise') are beyond the ken of Gorynych. They illustrate both Babka's human nature and her need for a real mother and father, a need that is of course fulfilled by the end credits.

The sequel The New Adventures of Babka Ezhka is a much more playful and humorous effort. Made to be shown either as a full-length film or as standalone TV episodes, five separate stories featuring the same characters from the first film offer hybrid fairytales, in which all the heroes and heroines have a role. Emelya the Fool, sent by the Tsar to rid the forest of evil spirits, is locked up in his stove; the smart and buxom Vasilissa the Fair marries Koshchei and sets up in domestic bliss with him, saving him from Prince Ivanushka. A cigar-smoking, wise-cracking Serpent Gorynych returns but is not killed, as he may turn out to be useful in future tales. Visual and verbal jokes abound but this film lacks the atmosphere and charm of the original.

Both films show that in terms of production quality, Russian animation can match anything on offer. In the first feature the backgrounds are particularly stunning, though some of the character cells often have a slightly cheap digital ink-and-paint look to their palate. The scenes where Gorynych steals the flower recall some of Miyazaki's work quite strongly (in particular the Omhu and Gollum-like monsters of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, 1984 ) and are some of the most effective. Scripting and plot leave something to be desired, and the attempts at adult-directed humour in the second feature are not as sharp as in the US movies by which it is obviously influenced.

 

Jeremy Morris
University of Birmingham

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Babka Ezhka and Co., Russia, 2006
Color, 70 minutes
Director: Mikhail Ugarov
Screenplay: Mikhail Lipskerov
Voices: Aleksandr Pozharov, Tat’iana Bondarenko, Aleksei Kolgan, Anna Orel, Mikhail Kokshenov, Armen Dzhigarkhanian
Music: Aleksandr Pinegin
Songs: Igor' Zhuravlev, Aleksandr Pinegin, Andrei Usachev
Songs Performed by: Nikolai Rastorguev and Natal'ia Kniazhinskaia
Producer: Sergei Karpov
Production: United Multimedia Projects, with the assistance of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

The New Adventures of Babka Ezhka, Russia, 2008
Color, 75 minutes
Director: Nikolai Titov, Oktiabrina Potapova
Screenplay: Mikhail Lipskerov
Voices: Dmitrii Nazarov, Aleksandr Pozharov, Tat’iana Bondarenko, Dmitrii Filimonov, Evgenii Khazov
Music: Aleksandr Pinegin, Vasilii Filatov
Producer: Sergei Karpov
Production: United Multimedia Projects, with the assistance of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinema

Valerii Ugarov: Babka Ezhka and Co. (Babka Ezhka i drugie, 2006),

Nikolai Titov, Oktiabrina Potapova: The New Adventures of Babka Ezhka (Novye prikliucheniia Babki Ezhki, 2008)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris © 2009

Updated: 08 Jan 09