Issue 45 (2014)

Vladlen Barbe: The Seal of King Solomon (Pechat’ tsaria Solomona, 2013)

reviewed by Mieka Erley© 2014

The Seal of King Solomon is the latest animated feature by Vladlen Barbe, a veteran of Soviet animation who, over the last decade, has moved from analog films to the direction and management of CGI features, including most recently The Snow Queen (Snezhnaia koroleva, 2012), a film that, although profitable, met with chilly critical reception outside of Russia. Barbe’s newest effort revives a project initiated over a decade ago, based on a script by the action film director Aleksandr Atanesyan, known for such films as Bastards (Svolochi, 2006) and Close Enemy (Blizkii vrag, 2010).

Solomons SealAtanesyan’s script makes a post-modern hash of canonical narratives, inexplicably fusing the tale of Solomon’s ring with “the fantastic adventures of Huckleberry Finn and his friends.” The story opens in Gehenna in 925 BC, when King Solomon uses his ring to trap the mischievous genie Yusuf in an amphora that is then hurtled into space by the enslaved demon Kishkash. Yusuf plummets down into St. Louis of 1865, sweeps up Huckleberry and his friends (Jim and two Missouri bandits, one of whom bears an uncanny resemblance to Crispin Glover), and deposits them all in the Moscow of 2012, where they meet a Russian girl who, in another anachronism, still rollerblades. Mayhem ensues when the bandits team up with a tattooed, alcoholic Russian criminal to steal Solomon’s ring (now, of all places, enshrined in a Moscow museum alongside an exhibit on American slavery), summoning the demon Kishkash to abet them in small-time crime. In this Bulgakovian set-up, demon and genie romp across Moscow for the next 60 minutes of the film, giving animators the chance to imagine a variety of city scenes: our characters ride on a Ferris wheel, drive bumper cars, stroll the banks of the Moscow River, and venture into a movie theater where they watch the classic silent film The Great Train Robbery rendered, tongue-in-cheek, in the “outmoded” style of cel animation. Some of the landscapes, backdrops, and set pieces in this Moscow fantasia are the most satisfying features of the film aesthetically, consistently better imagined and rendered than the 3D characters.

Solomons SealResponsibility for the failure of the animated characters rests with both scriptwriter and director. Not only are the characters visually flat and awkwardly animated, they are also devoid of personality, a problem that is compounded by the lack of narrative motivation as the film spins out into a series of attractions. Atanesyan’s choice to cast Huckleberry Finn as the plucky “unmarked” adolescent male hero is frankly quixotic given the complexity of the original story and, in particular, of the relationship between Huck and Jim. Here, Jim figures as a simple and occasionally comical sidekick, afforded a few repetitive lines (“I was so scared” is his refrain). In a scene certain to make the average American cringe, the hunched old slave spontaneously grooves to a hip-hop video on Russian TV, noting that it “reminds him of the voice of his ancestors.” The theme of slavery is confusingly mirrored in Jim’s counterparts, Yusuf and Kishkash, themselves enslaved by Solomon (Kishkash asserts that he is “the slave of the ring of terror”). Brown-skinned, turban-wearing Yusuf is sketched in a conventionally Orientalist manner that, aside from inducing the usual discomfort, brings in complicated associations with Russia’s “own Orientals” from Central Asia, many of whom form a shadow population of migrant laborers throughout contemporary Moscow. Indeed, it would appear that the two stories have more in common than we might have thought, although it’s not clear that Atanesyan has any control over this meaning. The tale concludes with the successful subordination of both demon and genie and the return of the ring to the autocrat.

Solomons SealWill children pick up on these things? How should they feel when a Russian SWAT team is dispatched to GUM to apprehend Kishkash and friends? Will they notice that, when Huckleberry and his friends are discussing what to do about the ring, Jim, the runaway slave, speaks up for property rights and urges them to “return the property to its master”? Atanesyan and Barbe seem unconcerned. Responding to questions about his previous film, Barbe noted that “children, unlike critics, do not ask these questions” (Tereshchenko 2012).

Solomons Seal Just as eclectic and vertiginous as Atanesyan’s script is the visual style of the film. Among the disconcerting artistic effects is the “flattening” of the 3D characters (called “toon shading” or “cel shading”), designed to give a first impression of hand-drawn animation. The effect does not appear to have been applied consistently to all characters: Yusuf, for example, remains slick and dimensional whereas the SWAT team are so cartoony that they appear to have wandered in from an Inspector Gadget episode (apparently signaling that state violence can be friendly). Painterly 2D backgrounds (often attractive) sit uneasily behind clumsy CGI graphics and characters (often unattractive). In a scene in which Yusuf conjures an Oriental-style banquet, the food is rendered in hyper-real 3D, clashing against the flat, “toon shaded” characters. While in theory this may seem like a good way to mark the difference between the real and the fantastic, the effect induces motion sickness in the context of so many unmotivated inconsistencies of style.

Solomons Seal Finally, the animators do not appear to have fully mastered the physics of their animated world. Objects appear to float, failing to give the illusion of mass; shadows do not appear linked to actual objects in space; motion—particularly walking and talking—is jerky and unconvincing (imagine everyone doing Monty Python funny walks). The result of all this is a vertiginously animated universe that remakes physical law and visual perception anew in every frame. I’d like to think this was an enlightened comment on the epistemology of vision (we might think here of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life), but more likely it reflects the economic and aesthetic pressures that bore on decision-making processes in the animation studio. Barbe has stated that the director should not have to “change the diapers” of his animation staff (Tereshchenko 2012). If no one changes the diapers, however, something will inevitably begin to stink. In the brave new world of CGI, it is the ultimate responsibility of the director to synthesize the work of dozens of animators and artists, and, in a less tangible way, to provide heart and soul to the machine. If the director has no vision to inform this slavish engine of fantasy, we are left with the soulless residue of computation: animation made by machines for machines.

Mieka Erley
Colgate University

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Works Cited

Tereshchenko, Mariia (2012), “Vladlen Barbe, Maksim Sveshnikov: ‘Kosmonavtov vo vsem mire bol’she, chem animatorov 3D’,” Interview, 29 December, Kino-Teatr.ru


The Seal of King Solomon, Russia, 2013
Animation, Color, 3D, 82 minutes
Director: Vladlen Barbe
Script: Aleksandr Atanesyan
Voices: Vladimir Dolinskiy, Dmitriy Dyuzhev, Aleksandr Golovin, Eduard Radzyukevich, Evgeniya Trofimova
Music: Toni Laubinger
Producers: Aleksandr Atanesyan, Ruben Atoyan, Oksana Brovchenko, Vsevolod Zorin
Production: Rome Animation and Film Studio

Vladlen Barbe: The Seal of King Solomon (Pechat’ tsaria Solomona, 2013)

reviewed by Mieka Erley© 2014

Updated: 06 Jul 14