Issue 41 (2013)

Konstantin Feoktistov: Three Bogatyrs on Faraway Shores (Tri bogatyria na dal’nikh beregakh, 2012)

reviewed by Laura Pontieri © 2013

tri bogatyrya na dalnikh beregakhThree Bogatyrs on Faraway Shores is the fifth film produced by the animation studio Melnitsa on the adventures of the three bogatyrs, warriors of the ancient Rus’, Alesha Popovich, Dobrynia Nikitin and Il’ia Muromets. The characters are drawn from the byliny, the old epic folk stories, and are well known to the Russian audience, not only from the traditional stories but also from the previous films released by the studio.

The studio Melnitsa became famous in 2003 with Karlik Nos (dir. Il’ia Maksimov), which was one of the first attempts to create a feature-length animated film in post-Soviet Russia. The studio has also produced some TV serials such as The Adventures in the Emerald City (1999-2000), and more recently Barboskiny and Luntik; but its best output resides in those short films made by Konstantin Bronzit—such as The God (2004) and Love Story (2007)—which are less accessible to a wide audience but surely distinguishable for their wit presented in a simple and laconic style.
The public success of the studio was definitely affirmed with a series of films dedicated to the three bogatyrs, Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent  (dir. Bronzit, 2004), Dobrynia Nikitich and the Dragon Gorynych (dir. Il’ia Maksimov, 2006), Il’ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber  (dir. Toropchin, 2007), Three Bogatyrs and the Shamakhan Queen (dir. Glezin, 2010).

tri bogatyrya na dalnikh beregakhEach film of the series was appointed a different director, with the intent to give each a fresh and original approach. For Three Bogatyrs on Faraway Shores the direction went to the debuting Konstantin Feoktistov, while the script was written once more by Aleksandr Boiarskii, the head of the studio. As in the previous movies, famous Russian actors gave voice to the characters of the film–Sergei Makovetskii (Kiev Kniaz), Dmitrii Vysotskii (Iulii), Dmitrii Bykovskii (Il’ia Muromets), Valerii Solov’ev (Dobrynia Nikitich), Oleg Kulikovich (Alesha Popovich). In addition, this recent production boasts two new voices, Fedor Bondarchuk for Kolyvan and Elizaveta Boiarskaia for Baba Yaga, two characters that lead the entire film.

In the story, Kolyvan and Baba Yaga plan to take over the palace of the Prince of Kiev. They succeed in their attempt with the help of a singular army—two enormous bunnies. They also create a fake source of legitimation, the doubles of the three bogatyrs, who affirm that the charlatans are the legitimate successors of the Prince. In the meantime, with the help of further magic, Baba Yaga banishes the real bogatyrs to a remote shore. The plot develops through various episodes involving the impostors with their bunnies, the Prince of Kiev with the horse Iulii, the bogatyrs’ wives with the doubles, the real bogatyrs with the indigenous people and a giant gorilla, and the appearance of some characters from the previous series—Tikhon, babka and the dragon Gorynych.

tri bogatyrya na dalnikh beregakhIn the Russian popular consciousness, the traditional three bogatyrs are strong and brave men with a solid and patriotic sense of duty. Their aspect has been shaped in the modern Russian mind by the famous painting Three Bogatyrs by Viktor Vasnetsov (1898)—the same painting that we see in this film and from which the doubles are magically created. Although the presence of this painting in Kievan Rus’ is an anachronism, the reference might aspire to create a link to the traditional stories. However, the Melnitsa series presents the bogatyrs in quite a different light. Their look is caricatured rather than majestic, and their deeds are awkward and clumsy rather than tough and courageous. Alesha in particular emerges not so much as a glorious warrior but as a circus entertainer, as evidenced in the scene on the island where he amuses the natives, reminding us of the old circus lion in the famous animated film Bonifacius’s Vacations (Khitruk, 1965). On the screen, the bogatyrs’ noble undertakings are, thus, divested of the serious character proper of the byliny, and the film resides not only in the genre of adventure, but also of comedy.

The humor of the movie derives from visual gags and verbal puns, comic situations, characterization, and the combination of music with incongruent actions. Visual gags—such as the Prince of Kiev and Iulii appearing at the peasants’ door with Iulii’s ears sticking out of the ruler’s head—or puns, like the literal interpretation of idiomatic expression, are traditional expedients of comedy, but they are not very frequent in the film.

The gags created around the figure of Baba Yaga are based on the incongruity of her desire to be a tsaritsa, live in a palace, and dress up for balls, versus her natural witchy look and traditional abode, the house on chicken legs. While incongruity is conventionally one of the main sources of the comic, the transformation of such a traditional character is not always successful.

The bunnies at Baba Yaga’s service exploit the surprise of their unpredicted transformation to create a comic moment. These two cute little bunnies unexpectedly transform into enormous, evil and, at the same time, dumb-looking monsters that use their oversized carrots as bats. Although surprising, the bunnies lack the originality needed to sustain the spectators’ interest and are quite scary for a young audience who do not necessarily associate bunnies with evil creatures.

tri bogatyrya na dalnikh beregakhThe portrayal of the Kievan Prince is not very appealing, neither is his character thoroughly developed. Little is explained to justify the inner transformation that brings him from cowardly running away to leading a revolt against the impostors; the animation of this character does not expand on his usual apathetic and dumb expression. His companion Iulii—the endlessly talking horse that we know from the previous series—can be annoying, but he can also provoke a comic outcome with his silly behavior, literal interpretation of idiomatic phrases, and logorrhea. Modeled after the characters of American DreamWorks blockbusters, the horse Iulii presents a type of amusement that adheres to the parameters of American comedy more than Russian humor. Perhaps he intrigues a younger generation of spectators who enjoy long-feature American animation and consider films like The Bogatyrs a valid Russian alternative. The same younger audience might be inclined toward certain postmodernist tricks, such as rapid acceleration or subtle arrest of the images and swift zoom in and out—all typical signs of American-origin adventure and action films.

There is also an attempt to use music in a different way from traditional Russian animation. The soundtrack relies more on individual songs than a unifying organic and original music (composed by Mikhail Chertishchev). The songs consistently underline the episodic quality of the film, merely filling single episodes rather than conceiving the film as a whole. Other times, these video clips do not fit in the film, and their animation is primitive and showy. An example can be found in the scene where the bogatyrs arrive at the island. Alesha goes in search of food, and the bogatyrs’ wives suddenly spring into Alesha’s mind, dancing and singing.

Occasionally, the musical commentary does create a comic effect. The funniest instance is probably when a close-up of the cow in love with Iulii is accompanied by the song “Besame mucho.” However, the general impression is that the songs are often aimed at finding a common language with a young audience in lieu of creating a suitable accompaniment to the film.

tri bogatyrya na dalnikh beregakhThe film is perhaps most successful in presenting a straight criticism on Russian society and rulers. A satire that is undoubtedly addressed at contemporary Russia, but that has in itself recurrent traits of satirical works emerging at different times during the Russian and Soviet era: infatuation with foreign products, blind awe towards foreigners, ineptitude of the rulers to govern, corruption, unfair tax collection, high prices on produce, and swift acceptance of new impostors without any opposition. This type of satirical accent acquires even more weight when followed by shots of nationalist characters, such as the beautiful domes of the village that assume different colors from the reflection of the rising sun.

It is these very scenes with typical Russian landscapes that are the most successful elements in the film; examples are the opening few seconds on Baba Yaga’s swamp (before the witch’s house starts to behave like a drunk hen); the city of Kiev in the changing light, and the scenes of the bogatyrs’ journey to Kiev. These scenes—interesting in their use of depth and of light tones—connect the movie to traditional Russian animation.

To the contrary of many contemporary foreign animated films, Three Bogatyrs relies more on traditional, drawn animation than on computer graphics. As in many animation movies made in Russia, characters and scenes are first drawn, scanned, and only then do computer animators fill in the tasks of coloring, adding  backgrounds and special effects. Computers help the construction of the film and offer some special features, but the process of drawing successfully preserves the film from the cold and artificial effect that is common to pure computer animation.

tri bogatyrya na dalnikh beregakhThree Bogatyrs has also been released in 3D, but according to comments and reviews appearing in the Internet world [film's official website; otzyv.ru; megacritic.ru; kinoposik.ru] the 3D effects were undetectable, provoking only complaints from the viewers who purchased a highly expensive ticket for a special viewing experience that failed to be delivered. Russian animators need to work steadily before they can achieve foreign standards in the field of 3D animation.

We cannot talk about this film as an example of animation art, and I cannot fully agree on the quality of all the comic expedients, or the choice of the music. The structure and unity of the film is somewhat lacking and the development of certain characters remains unconvincing and superficial.  But the film still has entertaining moments and can reach a variety of audiences, and so achieves the main goal of its director and producers.

Laura Pontieri
Toronto

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Three Bogatyrs on Faraway Shores, Russia, 2013
Color, 65 min.
Director: Konstantin Feoktistov
Scriptwriter: Aleksandr Boiarskii
Art Director: Lidia Savina
Producers: Sergei Sel’ianov, Alkeksandr Boiarskii
Composer: Mikhail Chertishchev
Sound: Vladimir Golounin
Editing: Sergei Glezin
Artists: Svetlana Varfolomeeeva, Ekaterina Smirnova
Storyboard: Konstantin Feokistov, Darina Shmidt, Vladimir Toropchin
Animation: Ol’ga Lyzo, Tat’iana Rumiantseva, Evgeniia Troiniatnikova, Ol’ga Permiakova, Vera Shiganova, Natal’ia Kovalevskaia
Computer graphic and special effect: Andrei Sal’nikov, Marina Egorova, Ol’ga Lavrent’eva, Roman Smorodin
Voices: Dmitrii Bykovskii-Romashov (Il’ia Muromets); Valerii Solov’ev (Dobrynia Nikitich), Oleg Kulikovich (Alesha Popovich), Sergei Makovetskii (Kiev Kniaz), Dmitrii Vysotskii (Iulii),Fedor Bondarchuk (Kolyvan), Elizaveta Boiarskaia (Baba Yaga), Mariia Tsvetkova-Ovsiannikova (Alenushka), Elena Shul’man (Nastas’ia), Liia Medvedeva (Liubava),
Producers: Aleksandr Boiarskii, Sergei Sel’ianov

Konstantin Feoktistov: Three Bogatyrs on Faraway Shores (Tri bogatyria na dal’nikh beregakh, 2012)

reviewed by Laura Pontieri © 2013

Updated: 07 Jul 13