Issue 33 (2011)

Sergei Glezin: The Three Bogatyrs and the Shamakhan Queen (Tri bogatyria i Shamakhanskaia tsaritsa, 2010)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2011

shamakhanskThe Three Bogatyrs and the Shamakhan Queen or How Not to Rescue a Princess (Tri bogatyria i Shamakhanskaia tsaritsa) is the fourth film in the animated series produced by the St. Petersburg-based animation studio Mel'nitsa, and was released December 30, 2010.  The first three films in the series are Konstantin Bronzit's Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin-zmei 2004), Il'ia Maksimov's Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych (Dobrynia Nikitich i zmei Gorynych, 2006) and Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber (Il'ia Muromets i solovei-razboinik, 2007. Each of these films has been a commercial success grossing $1.7, 3.5, 9.8 and 19 million, respectively (kinopoisk.ru). The DVD was released on 17 February 2011 and during the first six weeks made 566,731,786 rubles, breaking the record for Russian animated films and earning a spot as one the most profitable Russian films in the last 10 years (Official Website). Perhaps Mel’nitsa has finally found a successful formula for domestic animated films by mixing Russia’s distant past with current technological trends in animation.

shamakhanskThis animated film is anachronistic, following the lead of the other films in this series. Set in medieval times, this film combines history of early Russia and Slavic and Russian folklore with more modern elements including a nod to Alexander Pushkin and video gaming. Each of the previous films featured one of the bogatyrs, Russian epic heroes, based very loosely on the heroes in the legends about Prince Vladimir in the Kievan-Rus’ bylina cycle, a collection of traditional Russian oral epic narrative poems. This film unites all three of the bogatyrs, Alesha Popovich, Il’ia Muromets and Dobrynia Nikitich, in one film and includes unforgettable sidekicks such as Iulii the talking horse, introduced in the previous films. Unlike the other three animated features this film also makes reference to 19th century Russian literature and the famous narrative epic of Alexander Pushkin, The Tale of The Golden Cockerel (Skazka o zolotom petushke, 1834) with the addition of the Shamakhan Queen.

This film opens with the bogatyrs, having vanquished villains such as the Nightingale Robber and Tugarin the Serpent in previous films, left attending to everyday cares with their wives and dreaming of their next battle. As in the first three films, the humor is often intertextual. The opening scene begins with a close up of the bogatyrs’ weapons, panning out to reveal the mighty chests and majestic faces of the three bogatyrs. The similarities to Viktor Vasnetsov’s famous painting Three Bogatyrs (1898) is revealed in the two-toned sky with ominous grey storm clouds that encroach on the white fluffy clouds, the rolling green mountains in the background and the positioning of the three heroes. But as more of the scene is revealed, the seriousness of the painting and the power of the three bogatyrs are undercut as the bogatyrs are sitting on a bench in their underwear. Their bare feet are dangling off the bench and instead of valiant horses, each hero has a horse head on a stick, reminiscent of a child’s toy. With no threats to Kievan Rus’ the bogatyrs have been forced to sit for a painting by their wives. Hence, from the opening scene viewers are expected to look beyond what is seen at first glance and realize that all may not be what it seems.

shamakhanskThis is one of the overarching ideas in this film: one must look deeper than the obvious as the need to conceal the truth for appearances’ sake is prevalent both in Kievan Rus’ and further abroad. The second idea is that women, if not downright dangerous like the Shamakhan Queen, rule even the bravest of men. While certainly not original, these themes are very common in animated films, especially films produced by Disney based on fairytales, for example The Little Mermaid [Ron Clements, John Musker, 1989] and more recently Tangled [Nathan Greno, Byron Howard, 2010]. Perhaps the use of clichéd but familiar themes helped to make this fourth film in the series so commercially successful.
In the first half of the film all three bogatyrs have been reduced to attending to daily concerns instead of defending the honor of their homeland. Il’ia Muromets, with glasses on, sits in front of a typewriter, taking dictation from Alenushka, a young chronicler, who leaves her hero-husband to run off to another news event, telling him not to wait up for her. Dobrynia is hen-pecked by his wife Natasha who is unwilling to let him leave even to save the kingdom and the Tsar. He obediently washes the dishes under her angry gaze until he finally sneaks off with the other bogatyrs. At first glance it seems that only Alesha has control over his wife, Liubava. While he trains to keep up his skills, she performs all the housework. However, it becomes clear to the viewer that for all Alesha’s strength, his wife, despite her diminutive size, is stronger than her husband. Peace and boredom reign for Tsar Vladimir as well. But unlike the bogatyrs the Tsar does not have a wife to keep him in line.

shamakhanskMeanwhile, in an exotic eastern kingdom the Shamakhan Queen is scheming to obtain eternal youth for herself. She has an enviable figure, alluring eyes and a hypnotic gaze that enslaves men, but she dreams about eternal youth, which is only attainable by watering a magic tree with the tears of a thousand beauties. However, this proves not so simple as the Shamakhan Queen has driven away all the beauties in her kingdom out of spite. She turns to Kievan Rus’ for help with her trusty sidekick, Raven, at her side. The Shamakhan Queen is certainly an allusion to old Disney classics like Snow White [William Cottrell, David Hand, 1937] and Sleeping Beauty [Clyde Geronimi, 1959]. While the Shamakhan Queen is not a Disneyesque evil stepmother, she does have sexual appeal with a hidden secret that echoes the hatred of the younger generation by the older aging generation in Disney films. Only in the final minutes of the film is the Queen’s veil lifted to reveal her true appearance. In order to achieve her plan, the Queen hypnotizes the Tsar, who falls madly in love with her, giving her half his kingdom. The Shamakhan Queen proves to be both dangerous and domineering to the males in the film following in the formulaic wake of other animated female villains.

Tsar Vladimir, who is capricious and child-like in this series, is reminiscent of the nobility depicted in Soviet animated films. Like a child he is bored in both the opening scene and in the final scene of the film. He sighs, rests his head on his hand, and taps his fingers on the desk. These parallel scenes give the audience the feeling that boredom is his most natural state. Adding to the Tsar’s child-like demeanor, he plays with a gold trophy of himself and he packs his teddy bear as he heads out on his quest to win the love of the Shamakhan Queen. The political implications of the Tsar’s appearance and behavior are suggestive of Soviet animated films. In Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s The Humpbacked Horse (Konek-gorbunok, 1947) the Tsar is ineffectual in his actions and in his childlike appearance. In The Humpbacked Horse the Tsar’s robes are too big on him and they hang over his hands and feet. The Tsar also has the same baby-round nose and rosy-fat cheeks, which are associated with youth. While Tsar Vladimir in this series does not have an infantile appearance, his actions can be described as juvenile. The Tsar’s ability to fall in love at first sight is part of the ineffectualness of his character. He falls in love with the Shamakhan Queen at first glance from a photo of her with a personal ad written on the back. The Tsar in his pursuit to win the hand of the Queen is ready to do anything, including giving away half his empire. The three bogatyrs are forced to set out on a quest to save the Tsar and his kingdom from the threat of this evil and mysterious Queen.

shamakhanskThe political implications of this film work on another level as well. The name of the Shamakhan Queen is a reference to Alexander Pushkin’s Tale of The Golden Cockerel. Pushkin’s tale is a political satire and is written in the spirit of a Russian folktale. The idea for his tale was loosely based on the first two chapters of Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra (1829). Irving’s enchantress is called a Christian woman, but Pushkin adds a mysterious Eastern influence to her. In Pushkin’s poem Tsar Dadon is infatuated by the Shamakhan Queen’s beauty. Though she never speaks, her beauty causes the death of the Tsar’s two sons and she is also the cause of the Tsar’s downfall at the end of the poem. She magically disappears when the golden cockerel, who sits atop a spire and warns the kingdom of an approaching threat, flies down and kills the Tsar. The plot of this animated film is in many ways inspired by Pushkin’s original. The queens have the same name, both have a mystical Eastern influence and both have a power over men that leads them to compromise their kingdoms.  In both Pushkin’s original and this animated film the Tsar pursues his own interests over the interests of the state.

The film also follows the lead of the others in this series by including distinct features of video games and by parodying video games in the film’s trailer. Many of the fight scenes are presented from a first-person shooter perspective, in which the audience experiences the action through the eyes of one of the bogatyrs, for example, when the Shamakhan Queen’s minions attack the bogatyrs. The second trailer for this film, which was released in June 2010, is a parody of the cinematic trailer for the World of Warcraft Cataclysm expansion pack. In this second trailer the subtitles are emblazoned with fiery yellow letters that are also used to designate the company Blizzard Entertainment, the creator of World of Warcraft, in their subtitles. The trailers both begin with epic music and a voiceover introducing the main characters and proclaiming that while peace reigns, trouble is brewing. And in parallel to the World of Warcraft trailer, each bogatyr is shown in their home and in battle as an introduction to the film. The commercial success of this series has been increasing since the release of the first film in 2004, in part, because of such marketing. Using distinct features such as the allusions to World of Warcraft allows Mel’nitsa to do what western animation studios have found paramount to their success at the box office: attract not only children with their parents in tow, but adults without children as well.

Lora Mjolsness
University of California at Irvine

Comment on this article on Facebook

The Three Bogatyrs and the Shamakhan Queen, Russia 2010
Color, 75 minutes
Scriptwriters: Aleksandr Boiarskii and Ol’ga Nikiforova
Director: Sergei Glezin
Producers: Sergei Sel’ianov and Aleksandr Boiarskii
Production Design: Elena Lavrent’eva and Oleg Markelov
Composer: Zakhar Antonov
Production: Mel'nitsa, CTB, Nashe Kino
Voices: Valerii Solov'ev, Anna Geller, Oleg Kulikovich, Liia Medvedeva, Sergei Makovetskii, Konstantin Bronzit, Dmitrii Bykovskii, Dmitrii Vysotskii, Mariia Tsvetkova
Website: www.3bogatirya.ru

Sergei Glezin: The Three Bogatyrs and the Shamakhan Queen (Tri bogatyria i Shamakhanskaia tsaritsa, 2010)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2011

Updated: 07 Jul 11