Issue 25 (2009)

Liudmila Steblianko: About Fedot the Shooter, the Brave Lad (Pro Fedota-strel’tsa, udalogo molodtsa, 2008)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2009

fedotAbout Fedot the Shooter, the latest offering from Mel’nitsa, the studio that produced the cartoon trilogy Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei 2004), Dobrynia Nikitych and the Serpent Gorynych (Dobrynia Nikitych i zmei Gorynych 2006), and Il’ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber (Il’ia Muromets i Solovei-razboinik 2007), is based on a folktale rather than an epic. The story begins with the hero, Fedot the tsar’s hunter. Although he is called “daring” (udaloi), he has no special talents. He is ordinary-looking and, when the tsar sends him out to hunt game for a feast to entertain a foreign guest, he proves himself to be inept, failing to see the creatures that surround him in the forest. As the sun sets, he comes upon a dove and decides that a bit of dove flesh is better than no game at all. Speaking in a woman’s voice, the dove begs for its life. Fedot agrees not to shoot her and takes her home where, in the middle of the night, she turns into a maiden named Marusia. If this were a magic tale, then the dove would prove to be  a princess whom Fedot would lose and have to seek, much like The Frog Princess (Tsarevna Liagushka 1954, 1971), also rendered in cartoons as Vasilisa the Beautiful (Vasilisa Prekrasnaia 1977). Or the dove could become a magic helper in his quest for the hand of the tsar’s daughter, who, as it turns out, is in fact in love with Fedot. But this film is not based strictly on a magic tale: it contains erotic and other adult elements as well. Thus the main portion of the story follows the plot of tales for adults that belong to the category of bytovye skazki, or what Haney translates as “Tales of Love and Life.” After the dove turns into a woman, the tsar sees her and falls in love with her.  He tries to get rid of Fedot so that he can have free access to Marusia, who has become Fedot’s wife. The tsar cannot simply have Fedot executed because that would cause the people to rise up against him. Instead, he sends out Fedot on one impossible mission after another. Each mission is fulfilled by the magic dove-wife Marusia: she serves up the feast that the tsar had originally wanted; she makes a carpet sewn with threads of gold that is also a map of Russia; and she produces a deer with golden horns that illuminate the room. Finally, the tsar demands that Fedot produce Him-who-cannot-be. Here Marusia is helpless and Fedot must go on the quest himself. He triumphs through luck or good fortune, much in the same way as he stumbled on Marusia in the first place. When the people learn that the tsar had tried to seduce Fedot’s wife in his absence, they rise against their ruler, who is banished while Fedot and Marusia live happily ever after. 

fedotThe clever combination of magic tale and bytovaia skazka is not the invention of the scriptwriters at Mel’nitsa. Rather, it comes about because the film is based on a play in verse with the same title written by Leonid Filatov, an actor, poet, and film-maker. Published in serial form in the periodical Iunost’ and then as a book in 1988, the tale also served as the screenplay for a one-man television play staring Filatov himself. In 2000 it came out as a live-action film with a slightly different title. The current film is its animated incarnation.  Audience response to the film depends a great deal on familiarity with the version enacted by Filatov himself: those who saw the television play say that no subsequent rendition can compare. They tend to give the animated version mediocre ratings, saying that it was shortened from the original and that it is missing something, not only in length, but in impact. Those who are not familiar with Filatov’s performance, this reviewer included, like the cartoon version (see Afisha, Kinopoisk).

fedotThe animated film is clever in many ways. It also references, whether intentionally or not, American cartoons, Soviet mult’fil’my and American live action features. The film is anachronistic, like the television series Flintstones (dir. Hanna-Barbera, 1960-66). Set in medieval times, with boyars with long robes and beards and a tsar dressed in jewels, the film is also replete with modern elements. When the dove-maiden Marusia summons her magic helpers, she calls them up on a telephone. Fedot lives in an apartment building, albeit one with widows typical of a village izba. When we see views of the city as a whole, we see modern-looking shop signs and cranes used for lifting girders to build high-rises. As Fedot walks from his home to the tsar’s palace, he has to step over a pig nursing piglets in the street, but then we see traffic stopping at an intersection as in any modern city. Fedot may not punch a clock the way Fred Flintstone did, but when he arrives to see the tsar, he has to go past a receptionist working at a typewriter. The deer that Fedot is sent to fetch illuminates the whole room not because his antlers are really made of gold but because it has a light bulb at the end of each antler point. The deer is eventually hoisted up to become a chandelier.

fedotMany commentators have objected precisely to these “modern” features, even though they did not see any link to American cartoon serials. Special ire, however, was directed to a more blatant reference to American film. The Fedot film has several sub-plots; one follows the tsar’s efforts to marry off his daughter. He keeps entertaining various foreign diplomats with the intent of making them sons-in-law. The diplomat from Africa turns out to be more ape than man and, when frightened by the deer with light bulbs, he escapes from the tsar’s palace and climbs what looks like the Spas Tower in the Kremlin (Spasskaia bashnia) where he is buzzed by airplanes in an obvious reference to King Kong. (See Afisha, Kinopoisk blogs).  

The erotic elements in this film are reminiscent of Tex Avery’s reworking of Little Red Riding Hood (MGM 1943, 1945, 1949). Marusia the dove-maiden is much like Avery’s Red Hot Riding Hood.  She wears underwear worthy of Victoria’s Secret rather than medieval corsets and pantaloons, and her push-up bra gives her extraordinary cleavage into which Fedot buries his face whenever he receives an impossible command from the tsar.  The witch to whom the tsar and his henchman the General turn for advice is like grandmother in Avery’s work, a lusty old dame who applies lipstick and tries in vain to seduce the General.

fedotThere seem to be references to Soviet cartoons as well, especially to Iurii Norshtein’s Tale of Tales (Skazka skazok 1979). The animation, though done on a computer, seems to imitate the paper cut-out technique made famous by Norshtein, but also used in Winnie the Pooh (Vinni Pukh, F. Khitruk, 1969) and other cartoons. Norshtein’s technique of introducing bits of live film into his animation, for example when real water is shown, finds its echo in Fedot in the form of snippets of television footage. Here the two magic women, Marusia and the witch, use an apple rolling around a plate, not to view the future or events in distant lands, but to watch television. The witch, for example, watches a soccer match with live players until she is interrupted. Marusia’s huge breasts may even be an allusion to the enormous disembodied breast which the baby suckles in Tale of Tales.

fedotThere are many interesting political implications in Fedot. The tsar is diminutive and capricious, like the tsars in Soviet cartoons based on folktales. While his political ineffectualness openly criticizes imperial rule, it might also be seen to criticize the government of the late Soviet period when Filatov’s work was written, and possibly more recent governments as well. The tsar’s power is based on a combination of bluff and inertia. As a result, he is preoccupied with appearances and fearful of public support—or its lack. He continually justifies what he does by saying that it is government business (gosudarstvennoe delo). The nature of the business is, of course, never explained. While supposedly deeply involved in important matters of state, the tsar behaves like a peasant. Thus, when making conversation with visiting diplomats, the tsar asks about planting crops in the diplomat’s home country and about the undergarments worn by the women there. 

A character called simply “The General” is the tsar’s second in command. He is sent out first to spy on Fedot and later to come up with ways of destroying him. The General can be read as commentary of Russia’s militarism: all the General wants to do it fight. He has no stomach for the court intrigue in which he is continually embroiled. While he is appealing in his sincerity and simplicity, his behavior implies that the Russian military, like the General, could simply not remake itself from a fighting machine into a peacetime servant.

fedotRelations with foreigners and foreign lands display Russian patriotism, if not Russian chauvinism. The European diplomat, while elegant-looking, is no more attractive than the ape-man from Africa—and no less of a glutton. When Fedot goes to find Him-who-cannot-be, he travels to a range of foreign countries, including England, India, Egypt, China and Italy, but the object of his quest, it turns out, is to be found in a magical Russian place—the Island of Buyan.

Perhaps the most interesting subtext concerns gender. All the men are disconcertingly ineffectual. Women feed them, clothe them, and comfort them, and it is women who tell men what to do; on their own, men cannot come up with solutions to their problems. Fedot does not find dove-maiden Marusia; he stumbles on her—or perhaps she appears to him of her own accord. After that, it is Marusia who takes care of all the tasks assigned to her husband except for the last; he does nothing but mope and refuse to eat. As for the last task, Fedot does not solve it; he stumbles on a solution much as he stumbled on Marusia. Fedot has covered the entire world in his search. The only place he has not been is America. He is about to set sail across the Atlantic, but literally misses the boat and has to follow the large vessel in a rowing boat. A storm comes up and he is shipwrecked. As luck would have it, he finds himself on the Island of Buyan, and his wish for food is answered by Him-who-cannot-be. 

fedotIn folktales heroes often do nothing, while their tasks are solved for them by their companion-helpers or by old men by the roadside who offer magic tools. But in tales the helpers are usually male, while here all the solutions come from women. This applies to the tsar as well as to the hero. In traditional folktales, the tasks set by the tsar are missions that he invents on his own. In Fedot the tsar dispatches the General, but the General is useless except as a spy. He must go to the witch, who conjures up not potions or magic weapons, but clever schemes for the tsar. The tsar not only relies on a woman to tell him what to do, he submits to the verbal abuse of his daughter’s nanny. The nanny wears thick glasses, knits up a storm, and provides a running commentary on the sexual inadequacies of men, the tsar included. The film does not, however, celebrate strong women.  Strong women are not attractive unless, like Marusia the dove-maiden, they also can cook everything from roasts to karavai to crème brulée, do the laundry, decorate the house, and have stunning figures in the bargain. 

For its closeness to the folktale plot, Fedot is quite entertaining for all those who are not familiar with Filatov’s performance of his original poem. With this film Mel’nitsa has virtually reversed its approach to folklore. The studio’s animated trilogy took Russian heroic epics and transformed them into prosaic animated features, very different in language and plot from their originals. This film adopts a genre that is normally told in prose, but chooses a poetic version. Perhaps therefore, director Liudmila Steblianko and scriptwriter Roman Smorodin chose to stick closely to the original. Familiarity with this original, however, has also proven to be the basis for much dissatisfaction with the film. 

Natalie Kononenko
University of Alberta

Comment on this review via the LJ Forum

Works Cited

Haney, Jack. The Complete Russian Folktale.  Vol. 6, Tales of Love and Life, Armonk, N.Y. and London: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

“Pro Fedota strel’tsa…”, Afisha.

“Pro Fedota strel’tsa…”, Kinopoisk.

About Fedot the Shooter, the Brave Lad, Russia, 2008
Color, 70 minutes
Directed by: Liudmila Steblianko
Script: Liudmila Steblianko and Roman Smorodin: based on Leonid Filatov
Composer: Maksim Koshevarov
Artist: Anastasia Vasileva
Sound: Vladimir Golounin
Producers: Aleksandr Boiarskii, Konstantin Ernst, Sergei Selianov
Voices: Sergei Bezrukov (Fedot), Chulpan Khamatova (Marusia), Viktor Sukhorukov (Tsar), Dmitrii Diuzhev (General), Aleksandr Revva (Baba Iaga – the witch), Evgeniia Dobrovol’skaia (Nanny), Mikhail Efremov (He-who-cannot-be). 
Production: CTB Mel’nitsa

Liudmila Steblianko: About Fedot the Shooter, the Brave Lad (Pro Fedota-strel’tsa, udalogo molodtsa, 2008)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2009

Updated: 26 Aug 09