KinoKultura: Issue 43 (2014)

Folklore and New Russian Animation

By Birgit Beumers (Aberystwyth U)

With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 came the collapse not only of its nationalized film industry that was later to restructure itself in a painful and long process, but also of the main studio that produced cartoons: Soyuzmultfilm. During the 1990s a variety of animation studios were established, but most cartoons made in this period were shorts and screened only at festivals. Animation was therefore largely not targeted at an explicit audience, let alone at children. Many animators moved into advertising to earn a living.

One real breakthrough came when the Yaroslavl animator Aleksandr Petrov won an Academy Award (Oscar) for best animation in 2000. His technique involves painting on glass, a skill that made him an eminently suitable candidate to work in Canada on the first cartoon for 70mm format (IMAX), The Old Man and the Sea (Starik i more). Based on Ernest Hemingway’s story, the cartoon explores the relationship of man and nature through subtle and detailed images of sea life, weaving a harmonious entity from the forces of man and nature. Petrov’s film re-established Russia in the world of animation as a country that trains excellent animators and that has an industry capable of co-production. It thus opened the path for further development of the art of animation and its commercial exploitation, which led to the appearance of Russian full-length animated film in Russia’s cinemas. With the growing international success of DreamWorks, Fox Animation and Disney productions—Nick Park’s and Peter Lord’s Chicken Run (2000; budget $42 mill. and grossing $106 mill.); Shrek (2001; budget $60 mill.; gross $267 mill.) and Shrek 2 (2004; budget $150 mill.; gross $432); Ice Age (2002; budget $60 mill; gross $ 176 mill.) and Ice Age 2 (2006; budget $80 mill; gross $ 195 mill.), or Bolt (2008, budget $150 mill; gross $ 115 mill.), Russia started to produce its own heroes in an attempt to instil in young viewers a sense of belonging and of national values, cultural and historical.

To this end, full-length animated films were made; they were based on classical Russian plots and include Tat’iana Il’ina’s remake of The Nutcracker (Shchel’kunchik, Studio Argus 2003) and Vladimir Gagurin and Svetlana Grossu’s Neznaika and Barabas, 2004, based on Nikolai Nosov’s story and continuing the popular Neznaika cartoons of the 1980s. More recently, Valerii Ugarov’s Babka Ezhka and Others (Babka Ezhka i drugie, 2007), and the sequel directed by Nikolai Titiv and Oktiabrina Potapova (after Ugarov’s untimely death in November 2007) mix characters from Russian fairy tales and myths to create adventure stories. Babka Ezhka is the little Baba Yaga (and its diminutive)—a little girl dropped by the stork that is to deliver her to her parents in the midst of the forest; she is raised by mythological creatures ranging from Baba Yaga and Koshchei the Immortal, to the spirits Leshii, Vodianoi and Kikimora, thus acquainting children with the main characters of Russian legends and fairy tales, albeit in a somewhat muddled arrangement (see Morris). Georgii Gitis’s Adventures of Alenushka and Erema (Prikliucheniia Alenushki i Eremy, 2008) turns the fairy story of Alena who falls in love with Erema into an adventure that entertains and grips a young audience. Thus Russian animation gradually managed to resume its place in the film market and attract children to the cinemas after a very long gap caused by the collapse of film production and distribution, whilst at the same time offering alternative narratives to Hollywood, which introduce the young audiences to the country’s historical roots.

aleshaThere are only a few major animation studios in Russia who produce films for the Russian market and have shown that animation is commercially viable for theatrical release. Above all, this is the Petersburg studio Mel’nitsa (The Mill), founded in 1992 by Aleksandr Boiarskii and the composer Vladimir Vasenkov, which has played a very active part in this process, co-producing largely with Sergei Sel’ianov’s CTB studio (one of the most successful independent film studios in Russia). Thus Mel’nitsa hired, for example, the internationally known animator Konstantin Bronzit, whose cartoon The House at the End of the World (La Maison au bout du Monde, 1999) is a plainly and funnily drawn story about people living in a house on the top of a hill. The difficulties associated with this life are overcome with a sense of lightness and ease in child-like drawings—which brought Bronzit international awards (indeed, his recent cartoon, Lavatory Love Story, was nominated for an Oscar in 2009).

For Melnitsa Bronzit made a feature-length film based on a Russian folk legend: Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei,CTB and Mel’nitsa 2004), a drawn cartoon about the Russian folk hero Alesha Popovich who features as the Russian superman: his demeanor is that of the American Superman, while his use of language parodies the incorrect language of the New Russians: he is dumb, but innately good, and although he cannot read or write, his muscles can shift rocks and mountains. Bronzit’s simple images illustrate the grotesque features of the “hero,” returning animation to its roots: simple lines and caricatured characters. Bronzit draws the Russian landscape in a two-dimensional manner: the flat hills and valleys are reminiscent of The House at the End of the World. The Russian field is sown as a strip of flowers that are pulled before the camera, while the birch tree forest is so dense that the tree trunks resemble a wallpaper backdrop allowing characters to appear and disappear between slits.
Scene from Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent

aleshaThe film begins with a fast-forward summary of Alesha’s childhood, characterizing him as a dumb but nice boy who is a little clumsy. Alesha’s town (Rostov) is threatened by the dark army of Tugarin—a Tatar khan according to the legend—with a long and twisted moustache and slit eyes in the animation. Alesha tries to fool Tugarin, but his plan to deceive the enemy fails and Tugarin takes away the town’s valuables. Alesha sets off to find Tugarin and return the gold. Here a fairy tale component is mixed with the bylina: the knight stands at the crossroads and has three choices: here not three brothers face this choice, but Alesha, his step-father Tikhon, his girlfriend Lubava and her mother as well as their donkey Moisei, and the speaking “knightlyQ” horse Julius Caesar—a parody of the new Russian who nevertheless remembers values of honour and loyalty, but often goes down the path of materialism, only to regret, return and redeem himself. Thus at the crossroads the horse chooses the path to the left to become rich. The horse gambles with a talking tree (a mix of evil spirit and slot machine) and loses its four hoofs and the skin, managing to run away before being stripped of the latter. Lubava takes the turn to the right: the road of love and happiness—and finds she cannot live without Alesha and returns. Alesha also turns back when he realises he is not such a knight after all and loves Lubava too much. They are all are united to retrieve the treasure from the enemy, Tugarin.

aleshaThe talking horse as a version of the magic horse from the traditional bylina is clearly modeled on the donkey in Shrek, who was given its unforgettable voice by Eddie Murphy (see MacFadyen). The horse—Julius Caesar—talks without interruption. He refrains categorically from work and action, instead being carried on Alesha’s shoulders. When he does take on a job, it usually goes wrong. Yet the horse knows popular music and is a genuine entertainer—performing folk songs adapted to modern instruments in the style of techno music. Julius Caesar is clearly the most pragmatic of the lot, even if the legendary heroic conduct triumphs in the end: while the horse insists that money rules the world and wants to divide the gold and run, Alesha argues that they must return it all to the village “so that people believe in us”—only to be met at the end by a crowd that ignores the hero while the townspeople throw themselves onto the gold to retrieve their property.

alesha Knights and princes are no longer as reliable as they used to be in the legends: Sviatogor is a super-hero only in armour; when he takes this off he is a wise old man who nods off and even suffers from bouts of dementia. The prince (Vladimir) is obviously corrupt and devious: when Tikhon and Lubava’s mother take the gold they have recuperated from Tugarin to the tsar for safekeeping, he tries to appropriate it and returns it only when Alesha threatens to cut loose Tugarin’s ties. The prince is not trustworthy—representing a feature of contemporary Russia: do not trust the state but make your own arrangements. “If in Soviet cartoons the Tsar had to be stupid, a coward or evil, then here (times have changed!) he is—apart from being a coward—is also greedy, sly and gay. It is clear that the creators of the cartoon are aiming their irony not at the power of the Tsars, but rather at the contemporary government – unprincipled, robbing the simple people, mercenary when it comes to oil dollars, and accumulating gold reserves—as in the well-known slogan by Eduard Limonov: ‘Down with Putin’s autocracy!’” (Brazhinov). Animation is here being used to build a tradition of Russian cartoons for young audiences and acquaint them with their cultural heritage. This goal is achieved by transposing the plot into the contemporary world, largely by interspersing the dialogue with modern street jargon (rather than by visual means).

dobryniaDobrynia Nikitich and Gorynych the Dragon (Dobrynia Nikitich i zmei Gorynych, Ilia Maksimov 2006) continues the films about Russian knights. Dobrynia is shown as a wise knight, whose demeanour is quiet and determined, unlike the new Russian superman Alesha. Dobrynia sleeps as soon as the sun sets and wakes only when it rises. The prince is portrayed as a buddy figure: he signs letters inappropriately with “kisses, the prince.” The prince’s messenger Elisei attaches himself to Dobrynia in the hope of ‘learning a few tricks of how to become a hero’ as he wants to impress his beloved, the prince’s niece Zabava. Dobrynia has to display his heroic qualities to save the boy several times, and once he single-handedly attacks the Tatar khan to free Elisei. In the meantime the prince shows Zabava her possible suitors portrayed on wooden eggs—parodying portraiture and their looks; indeed, the prince himself looks rather old on his own egg-portrait. The prince gambles with his court and loses a fortune to the merchant Kalyvan. Therefore he agrees to gives away Zabava to pay off his gambling debt to Kalyvan. Thus Zabava is abducted by Kalyvan and freed by Dobrynia and Elisei. In the end, the prince does not want to keep his word and give Zabava to whoever returns her (Elisei)—but he is reminded by Dobrynia to keep his word.

dobrynia Gorynych is not the enemy here, but Dobrynia’s old friend; the enemy is the corrupt merchant. Gorynych is a three-headed dragon, which cannot fly… the grandfather with seven heads (from the bylina) could fly, but not the little dragon (a cuddly monster that seems to come straight out of Jurassic Park). Dobrynia has no magic horse but rides a ridiculous, continually hungry and thirsty camel – offering another parody of the special horse of the bylina’s hero—if Alesha had a talking horse, Dobrynia has a camel and only Ilia will have the real Burushka.

dobryniaThe contemporary language and behavior make this cartoon border on the burlesque. Zabava is a strong minded woman, not obedient; the woman at court dance and mix folk dance with pop music, swinging their pleated hair and their breasts to techno-beat. Dobrynia speaks like a mafia boss or a criminal authority, asking Elisei again and again: Do I make myself clear? (Ia poniatno obiasnial?). The merchant Kalyvan who blackmailed the prince to marry Zabava also holds his debts against Baba Yaga to make her bewitch Zabava and use her magic powers against Dobrynia. In the animated film, characters suffer from different moral weaknesses than in the bylina, such as gambling and bribing. The funny dialogues modernize the plot and turn it into an ironic reading of the legend. The films acknowledge the heroic feats and supernatural powers as unreal and belonging to world of animation (rather than the epic legends about Kievan Rus). The bylina contains another reality, rendered in animation not as a world of the past, but of a different reality. Therefore the existence of such heroes is possible in the modern—animated—world. The bogatyrs are displaced through the medium of animation, but not distanced in time or place.

ilyaThe third film, Ilia Muromets and Robber-Nightingale (Il’ia Muromets i Solovei-razboinik, CTB and Mel’nitsa 2007), was directed by the creator of video games, Vladimir Toropchin. It is drawn in quite a schematic way: the forest looks as if it had been copied from Ivan Bilibin, without the originality of Bronzit or Maksimov; moreover, the dialogues are much less witty and pointed. Yet Ilia Muromets was the most popular film of the trilogy commercially—Alesha Popovich had a budget of $ 4 million, grossing $1.7 million; Dobrynia Nikitich had a budget of $4.5 million and grossed $ 3.5 million, while Ilia Muromets had a budget of $2 million and grossed $9.8 million on the Russia market. (This also reflects the growth of the distribution sector in Russia.)

The knight Ilia is seen right away in action: he saves a village from a Tatar attack, but when then he discovers that the prince has released Solovei, the Nightingale Robber who whistles in such a way that his enemy is destroyed by a strong wind caused by the whistling. Solovei bribed the prince to be released and the greedy ruler agreed—now he is counting his savings. Ilia refuses to serve the prince any longer and keep capturing Solovei again and again, but this means Ilia has to leave behind his dear horse Burushka. The prince is beleaguered by the media: a letopisets—the modern-day journalist—Alenushka is after a story about heroism and needs a few details, interviews and close-up pictures to be taken by her ‘photographer’ who uses paper and pencil instead of a camera. She shouts about press freedom and promises the prince a story of heroism if he takes her to Ilia, who is led to follow Solovei again as the latter has stolen Burushka (and the prince’s treasure).

ilya Solovei is helpless when he cannot whistle—and he loses his tooth twice, not as a result of Ilia’s intervention, but because he is hit by an old woman who tells him that whistling means bad manners. The traditions of the past—if well respected—actually promise ultimate victory over evil and criminal forces. Ilia respects such traditions: he is superstitious and when a black cat crosses his path, he stops; when a bird sheds its dropping on somebody he takes this as heavenly approval. Ilia believes in fate and draws his power from the native soil that his mother sends him in a little sack. Of the three bogatyrs, Ilia is the one most deeply rooted in Russian traditions. Yet Toropchin uses precisely in this cartoon—quite inappropriately, and purely for entertainment purposes—references to American cinema, such as “Wanted” posters and melodies from the American Western for the chases, or a Presley-type seducer who whizzes Alena away, promising her a career in show-business (a euphemism for joining the Byzantine emperor’s harem).

The prince is entirely unfit for real life – he cannot even stand guard at night, he shouts around while Alena manages to find them a place on the ship without having to pay by offering their services as waiter and tour-guide. The prince and Alenushka reach Constantinople where they visit the dictator Vasilevs: this ruler has monuments to himself erected everywhere in the town, and the presence of prisons and a henchman allude to a totalitarian regime. The autocratic Vasilievs comes across as much more honest than the prince: he returns the treasure to the Kievan prince.

ilyaThe three films—the “epic blockbusters,” as the publicity campaign suggested—create a modernized image of the legendary heroes of the Russian folk epic. The knights may be drawn from the era of mediaeval Rus, but the demeanor of the characters is entirely contemporary. The ruler is greedy and unjust, the state cannot be trusted. The knights are loyal and have a sense of justice—even if they are somewhat dumb as Alesha, or somewhat sleepy as Dobrynia, or a little superstitious as Ilia. They know what has to be done and act—in this sense reinforcing the suggested model for contemporary society: to take responsibility and action in their own hands. At the same time, the Tatars of the bylina are clearly portrayed as Asians and thus different from the Russian characters both in their looks and behavior, providing another contemporary reference to the treatment of and attitude towards the East in contemporary Russia. The dialogues are amusing, filled with contemporary jargon and references to the modern world—especially for the characters who talk but do not act and yet want to be heroes, such as the journalist Alenushka, the messenger Elisei, or the horse Julius Caesar. These animated films set out to suggest an ancient, but modernized concept of heroism for Russia. These heroes are neither kitschy nor didactic—as might be the case in a live-action film—because the medium of animation allows the removal of heroic feats into a different world that is here and now—but not real.

Another recent development is the work of the studio Pilot, founded in 1988 by Aleksandr Tatarskii (1950-2007), who created the “Pilot Brothers” series (1990s), featuring two plain drawn characters who comment on modern life and provide a satirical gloss on politics. In 2004 Tatarskii launched a project entitled The Mountain of Gems (Gora Samotsvetov) to produce a series of short cartoons based on the fairy tales and legends of the peoples of Russia, underlining the concern with stories that form a national identity encompassing a whole range of ethnic groups and regions. This project has helped established and young animators to experiment with the short form and reach an audience through the release of the series on DVD: five parts were released as Ruby, Emerald, Amethyst, Amber and Sapphire, and a set of four DVDs followed in 2008. The project included, for example, Konstantin Bronzit’s Tomcat and Fox (Kot i lisa, 2004), based on a Russian fairy tale from Vologda; or Oleg Uzhinov’s Zhikharka (2006), based on fairy tale from the Urals; or Mikhail Aldashin’s About Ivan the Fool (Pro Ivana-duraka, 2003), based on a Russian tale from the Yaroslavl region (see review by Pontieri). The series also includes tales from Tatarstan, Karelia, Bashkortostan, or Mordovia. Pilot also produces a series of short trailers for Multi-Russia (Mul’ti-Rossiia), portraying aspects of the life of various regions of Russia. In this respect, the project is concerned with national identities, highlighting regional and ethnic differences as an aspect that enrich Russian culture rather than suggesting a unified national identity for Russia.

Thus animation—feature length and short—has in the first instance allowed animators to hark back at Russia’s rich cultural heritage by drawing on folk legends and fairy tales; and secondly, animation is being used to incorporate into the mainstream of animated film the regions and regional cultures, equipping Russia’s national identity with diversity and depth by encompassing the past and the periphery.

First published in May 2009 in the Newsletter #3 of the project “National Identity in Russia from 1961: Traditions & Deterritorialisation”.

Birgit Beumers
Aberystwyth University

Works Cited

Brazhinov, Il’ia, “Pomeniat’ konia,” Moskva 1 March 2005

Hartmann, Ulrike, ‘Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych’, KinoKultura 14 (2006)

MacFadyen, David, ‘Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent’, KinoKultura 9 (2005)

Morris, Jeremy, ‘Babka Ezhka and Others’, KinoKultura 23 (2009)

Pontieri Hlavacek, Laura, ‘Mikhail Aldashin and Oleg Uzhinov: About Ivan the Fool’, KinoKultura 11 (2006)

Strukov, Vlad, ‘Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber’, KinoKultura 22 (2008)


Birgit Beumers © 2009, 2014

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