Issue 45 (2014)
Vladimir Toropchin: Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf, 2 (Ivan i seryi volk-2, 2013)
reviewed by Natalie Kononenko© 2014
I am a Vladimir Toropchin fan, but I should have known that even a director as talented as Toropchin might have a hard time producing a good sequel, especially one that had to come out in time for the 2013 holiday season (the film was released on 26 December 2013). It is difficult to come up with a good plot once your characters are married and even the Shrek series struggled once it went past Shrek 2 (Dreamworks, 2004). 
The problem with the film under review is precisely the plot. Our hero Prince Ivan and his beloved Vasilisa were married at the conclusion of the first film in this series. They should live happily ever after and their wedding should be the end of the story. According to Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1958), one of the most common concluding functions to a tale is precisely marriage and rule. But what happens when a studio is in desperate need of a film for the holiday season? Well, the answer is that our heroes cannot live happily. Ivan, it seems, is pleased enough with his life. He has become a real champion of his new realm, working to secure its borders which, in this case, means repairing the fences of the Thrice-Ninth kingdom. It is Vasilisa who is not happy. She wants romance; she wants adventure; she wants to hold parties and invite people from other kingdoms (for diplomatic purposes, of course), and Ivan is just too busy working to cooperate. As a result of marital discord, there are no babies, even though a year has passed since the wedding. This makes the king, Vasilisa’s father, worried. To remedy the situation, he, in consultation with the Pushkin-inspired Learned Cat from the first episode of this series, come up with a scheme to stage an abduction of Vasilisa. If someone absconds with the capricious princess, they presume, then Ivan will jump to the rescue and romance will be rekindled. But who can one get to stage a fake abduction? It so happens that Chernomor, also inspired by Pushkin, is alive and well and working in the Thrice-Ninth Kingdom. Only he is no longer an evil sorcerer. He has lost his beard, the source of his powers, and he now makes a living as a clown, a job he hates because his dream is to be a serious dramatic actor. Chernomor accepts the pretend-abduction assignment but, as one might guess, the whole plot goes horribly wrong. Chernomor’s beard is restored and he becomes his old evil self again. Ivan rushes to rescue his love, but he is sent on a fool’s errand to the moon. He eventually figures out that he is looking for his wife in the wrong place and hurries to the palace of the sorcerer. Chernomor is defeated, or rather deprived of his beard, and all can live happily ever after—or at least until Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf 3.
Of course there is a great deal more going on than can be seen from this summary of the flimsy plot, one as contrived as the abduction scheme. One issue is the presentation of women. It is the women who drive the plot, but not in a good way. The main instigator of action, Vasilisa, is presented as a spoiled brat. While Ivan is portrayed as being hard-working and concerned about the well-being of the kingdom, Vasilisa’s concern is with her own amusement. At the beginning of the film we see her listening to the Learned Cat reading from Pushkin’s Ruslan and Ludmila and what she hears is precisely the episode where Ruslan battles and defeats the evil Chernomor. Vasilisa finds all this marvelously romantic and she wants her husband to undertake heroic quests, just like Ruslan. She does not think that this might put Ivan in danger and so she is quite willing to be abducted. In fact, when Chernomor shows up in her chambers, she suggests abduction to him, not realizing that he has already been hired precisely for that purpose by her father. Of course, she must first pack, then check her mascara, and only then does she jump into the sorcerer’s arms and tell him to carry her off. Vasilisa is not the only capricious, vain, and self-centered female. The Mermaid from the first Ivan and the Grey Wolf film is back and she too is so obsessed with romance that she inadvertently endangers others. After Chernomor carries off Vasilisa, Ivan and the Grey Wolf try desperately to get information on her whereabouts. The Mermaid tells them that the pair has flown off to the moon. When it later turns out that this information was wrong and the Mermaid is asked why she misdirected Ivan, she says that she was certain it must have been the moon because this was the most romantic possible destination. According to a Russian proverb, God loves a trinity and there is a third vain and potentially destructive female. Chernomor has a sister. She appears as a bat while Chernomor is beardless, but becomes a woman, albeit with pointy ears, whenever he reacquires his beard and becomes an evil sorcerer. The bat sister is so interested in being a woman and being able to wear the latest fashions that she keeps trying to get her brother to be his evil, bearded incarnation as much as possible. To her, the destruction he may cause in this embodiment pales in comparison to the fun that she has when she has the body of a woman and is able to wear fancy clothes. Women in this film are presented as self-centered airheads who cannot think beyond their own petty desires. Any action instigated by a woman will, at best, be funny and, at worst, create a terrible mess, implying that women cannot be trusted and should be kept out of positions of responsibility and power. I find it distressing that one father, commenting on the website Afisha, stated that his young daughter really enjoyed the film and recommended it to other parents of young children.
The advertisements for Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf 2 promise humor. This is not just an adventure story, the trailers tell us, it is also marvelously funny. I did appreciate the humor of the first Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf. While some of it was slap-stick, the parodies of Soviet-era grand parades and tourist excursions were, in my opinion, very effective, as was the story line where Ivan, a member of the upper class, wants to be a proletarian fireman. All of this is absent in episode 2. Perhaps the Soviet parodies appealed to older individuals only and were lost on young parents taking their children to the movie theater. In any case, this film does not make fun of the Soviet era and the amusing scenes are few. One that did appeal to me was the scene where Ivan and Grey Wolf travel to the moon. Not having the magic power of flight like Chernomor, they need to resort to being shot out of a cannon. While they fly, Grey Wolf behaves much as people on trains traveling across Russia might do. He snacks. He reads the paper and does what seems to be a crossword. He falls asleep. Other scenes meant to be amusing such as the naked king lusting after Chernomor’s bat sister and being ashamed of his aging and scrawny body are not that effective. The other item that appealed to me was not a scene, but an object: the rocket that Ivan and Grey Wolf use to leave the moon. Apparently the moon is a place where anything you might think of, especially things that you fear, become real. Thus, when Grey Wolf presses Ivan to confess his fears, Ivan claims that he fears nothing, except, perhaps, of a rain of stones. Sure enough, rocks begin falling from the sky. Ivan and Grey hide in a cave and one of them mentions saber-toothed cave bears, which immediately materialize, followed by a mistakenly alluded to hairy mammoth. Once Ivan and Grey Wolf have overcome all of these tribulations and realize that they need to search for Vasilisa elsewhere, Ivan tells the Grey Wolf to think of a rocket so that one will materialize and carry them where they need to go. But neither really knows enough about rocketry and all Ivan can come up with is a cannon. Finally they do conjure up a rocket, but it has small wings and leaps or runs about on long, skinny, hairy legs. I did find the appearance of the rocket funny.
There are two fairly gratuitous musical numbers in the film, courtesy of composer Mikhail Chertishchev. One is Vasilisa’s song. When Vasilisa is abducted by Chernomor, she is ecstatic. This is what she had dreamed of and so, as the sorcerer carries her across the skies, we hear a song. It is not clear whether this is a song sung by Vasilisa or one that she hears in her head, but we do see our heroine against a kaleidoscopic background and, as she travels across the heavens, we see her greeting other sky travelers such as Hunchbacked Little Horse (Konek Gorbunok, Ivan Ivanov-Vano, 1947 and 1975) and Aladdin and Jasmine from Walt Disney’s film (1992). The song plays again when the credits roll and it is pleasant enough. In fact, I found one commentator on Kinopoisk who expressed appreciation for this number. The other song is less well-motivated and, in my opinion, potentially frightening for young viewers. The Learned Cat is presented as the most sophisticated of all the characters, human or animal; he is like Brian the dog in Family Guy (Fox Television, 1999-2003; 2005-present). But in Prince Ivan and Grey Wolf 2, he is seized by a primal passion when he sees Chernomor’s sister in bat form. He lusts for her, but this is not the sexual lust of the king. Rather, he is overcome with the urge to hunt and eat her. At one point the Cat has her tied up and pulls out a knife and fork—and then starts playing the piano. Cat and piano morph and merge and we see a creature with a cat’s head, a piano body, and huge piano keys for teeth. This creature leaps, flaps, flies, prances—and sings. Presumably, this is the Learned Cat’s attempt to control his urges for he claims several times that he is interested in the bat girl for scientific purposes only. Still, the scene is frightening. It has some of the elements of the Cheshire Cat in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951) and it may reference the film A Bygone Affair (Delo Proshloe, 1989) where the furniture also comes alive during a curse-induced nightmare. Either way, a child who realizes that cat wants to eat the bat girl and then sees the huge piano key teeth might well have nightmares.
There are some technical issues and Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf 2 does not seem to be as carefully executed as earlier Mel’nitsa movies, with lip movement and sound failing to synchronize with consistency. At first I thought the problem was the quality the print I was using, but commentators on sites such as Kinopoisk also noted that the quality of the animation left something to be desired, sometimes explaining this by drawing attention to Toropchin’s limited budget. Technical problems aside, the real issue here is plot. There is no real threat to our heroes and no real challenge. Chernomor does not want to be evil and he tries to avoid the reattachment of his beard, even though it makes him all-powerful. He is not the Shadow (Vashe Temnichestvo) of Prince Ivan episode 1. Being on the surface of the moon, a scene that is meant to parallel the underground kingdom of the first Prince Ivan film, does pose somewhat of a challenge, but all of the threatening objects vanish as easily as they materialize. A number of people commenting on both the Afisha and Kinopoisk sites praise this film for having a classic fairytale plot. This is indeed a quest story, with a misdirected trip to the moon followed by the battle with Chernomor, but it is not a classic tale by any means. Urged on by the many viewers who want traditional Russian fare rather than anything produced by Disney , Russian studios such Mel’nitsa and Paradiz have been mining Russian folklore. When they use Russian folklore for feature films, however, these studios do not just present a folktale-like quest plot; they add humor and music. Perhaps this is the influence of Shrek and the success of Melnitsa’a Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Dragon (2004), a film that has many Shrek-like elements, Konstantin Bronzit’s assertions to the contrary notwithstanding (Petrova). Whatever the motivation, humor and music seem to be requisites of contemporary, full-length Russian films that are based on folklore. At the same time the epics (byliny) used as the inspiration for Mel’nitsa’s Three Knights series  are simply not funny and neither are the magic tales (volshebnye skazki) used for the Ivan series. Epics and magic tales are stories of hardship and toil and triumph. Laughing at someone who is struggling to do his or her level best is in bad taste – and real folktales and epics do not try to be humorous. Neither did the folklore-based films of the Soviet era for which so many express nostalgia.
The method of adding humor to current folklore-based Russian films is through satire of contemporary life: a film may be set in medieval Rostov or a mythical Thrice-Ninth Kingdom, but references to the present are apparent and, being out of context, are funny. Sometimes the humor lies in the exposure of human foibles. On occasion this humor is successful, as it is in Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf; sometimes the humor seems forced, as in the film under review. It should be noted that Disney Studios, the company that defines fairytales to the point that my students picture various classic narratives in their Disney incarnations only, did not try make their films funny. Disney films, following of the pattern set by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), do have requisite musical numbers, but they do not try to make their heroes’ quests humorous. It will be interesting to see if Russian filmmaking will risk making a non-humorous, but still child-oriented folklore themed film.
University of Alberta
1] One could argue that the wedding which concludes the first film in the Shrek series is not really a wedding because the marriage is threatened and seems to be on the point of dissolution in Shrek 2.
2] See, for example, the debate on the subject of banning western films aimed at children between a representative of the Christian right, a Communist, an academic, and a politician on Karlson Outside the Law.
3] Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Dragon, 2004; Dobrynia Nikitych and Gorynych the Dragon, 2006; Il'ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber, 2007; The Three Knights and the Queen of Shamakhan, 2010; Three Knights on Distant Shores, 2012; a next film is scheduled for release in 2015.
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Petrova, Elena, “Konstantin Bronzit—imia v mirovoi animatsii,” interview with Konstantin Bronzit for Argumenty i fakty, no date, reprinted on Cartoonia.ru (Encyclopedia of Caricature).
Propp, Vladimir (1958), Morfologiia skazki , translated into English by Lawrence Scott, University of Texas Press.
Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf, 2
Director: Vladimir Toropchin
Script: Vladimir Toropchin and Aleksandr Boiarskii
Composer: Mikhail Chertishchev
Voices: Nikita Efremov , Ivan Okhlobystin, Tat’iana Bunina, Mikhail Boiarskii, Irina Rakhnamova, Aleksandr Boiarskii, Artur Smolianinov, Liia Akhedzhakova, Kristina Asmus
Producers: Sergei Selianov, Aleksandr Boiarskii
Vladimir Toropchin: Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf, 2 (Ivan i seryi volk-2, 2013)
reviewed by Natalie Kononenko© 2014