Issue 45 (2014)

Georgii Gitis, Viacheslav Plotnikov: How to Catch the Firebird’s Feather (Kak poimat’ pero zhar-ptitsy, 2013).

reviewed by Laura Pontieri© 2014

pero zhar ptitsyThe new film by the Moscow studio INLAY Film How to Catch the Firebird's Feather is another attempt by contemporary Russian animators to present a traditional story with a contemporary twist. In the last few years we have seen many approaches of this type:  suffice it to think of the series of the Three Bogatyrs by Melnitsa studio (Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent [2004], Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych [2006], Il’ia Muromets and the Nightingale-Robber [2007] ). Films following this tendency evoke mixed feelings. On the one hand, the spectator appreciates the effort to find an original way to present a well-known story. On the other, the contemporary twist does not always fit the film as a whole. This is what happens in How to Catch the Firebird's Feather. The film is a free adaptation of the traditional Russian folktale Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf, with the addition of elements from other folktales and original twists.[1] A king sends his three sons to find the legendary Firebird. When the first two sons fail, the youngest, Ivan Tsarevich, will set about the challenging task. With the help of a grey wolf as loyal companion, Ivan faces adventures and challenges, including avoiding his brothers’ evil plans to kill him, finding a magic horse, capturing Helen the Beautiful, and dealing with the legendary Kikimora. At the end, Ivan will deliver the Firebird to his father, while his brothers will be unmasked.

The movie follows the structure of a typical folktale: A narrator introduces the story and presents events throughout the film; the story is announced as “true”; the characters are dispatched on a quest; the hero has to overcome repetitive obstacles; during the journey he helps passersby and they eventually will return the favor; the quest object will be found; the main character successfully returns home.

pero zhar ptitsyIt is at the very beginning of this film that we see the first attempt to modernize the classical folktale. The film begins with a narrator voiceover. This narrator is omniscient, and provides an ironic perspective that concurrently addresses the film to an older audience. He also manipulates time. After only a few minutes from the beginning, he interrupts the story and suggests a different beginning, less sad and more “traditional”. The story rewinds, and a second attempt—featuring a character jumping out of the window in a style faithful to action-film and Japanese anime—is quickly dismissed and soon substituted by a third and definitive one. At this point the narrator steps back and leaves the ground to a grandmother-narrator, whose voice noticeably sounds more authentic for a conventional take of a folktale. The babushka, naturally, starts the story with a customary “Once upon a time” (“Zhili-byli…”). While this device places the film in a traditional folktale setting and defines its target audience as younger children, the introduction of an accustomed voice in such a disruptive beginning definitely creates a level of parody that pervades the entire approach.

Landscape, settings and costumes further place the film in Russian folk tradition. The directors (Georgii Gitis and Viacheslav Plotnikov), however, opt for a few variations from long-established folk custom. Most of the innovations involve the characters’ depiction and aim to appeal to a contemporary, young audience. Helen, traditionally a typical Russian beauty, is turned here into an anime-like champion in martial arts. Ivan, the main character, is presented as a reckless skateboarder—although it is not clear how this madcap on a board turns into a meek Ivan in subsequent scenes.

pero zhar ptitsyIn general, not only Ivan but most of the characters are poorly developed and as a result appear weak and unattractive. The film lacks a strong character with whom the audience can sympathize.  Ivan does not have any particular trait that stands out, while the king’s softness of heart is underlined by his being represented always in his nightgown. The brothers’ evilness is softened by their ineptitude, and some of the gags associated with them debase the comic level, namely when the middle brother (who, incidentally, looks like Severus Snape in Harry Potter) is found asleep on a toilet; or when the eldest brother expresses an implicit desire to see women in a sauna rather than follow his brother’s deeds on the magic mirror. The legendary Kikimora looks quite scary and disturbing at her debut, but, without a thoroughly developed chain of events, she quickly changes into a pathetic and helpless girl only concerned with finding her Prince Charming. The two horses that appear in the film are yet another example of horses-with-an-attitude borrowed from American animation and adopted by many recent Russian cartoons. Even the Firebird is not particularly appealing; it is depicted as a glowing, yellow crow with a caricature-like face and exaggerated combat movements. He might provoke laughter in the young audience but his portrayal is definitely incongruous with the legendary marvel and majestic beauty depicted in traditional folktales. The most engaging character is perhaps the wolf, but its appeal is probably due more to what he represents—support, guide and loyalty—than for the way he is depicted.

pero zhar ptitsyThe film, as do many contemporary Russian animated films, uses drawings on cel animation backed by computer programs. The landscape is organized on various layers that are arranged in the front and on the back of the characters, thus creating a sense of depth. The layers do not blend in the background, instead they look like simply drawn panel settings, much like a theatre stage. This effect is not accentuated as though it were a deliberate aesthetic choice, but it rather looks as if the background lacks elaboration. The result is further emphasized by the way the characters unevenly harmonize with the surrounding environment.

In one particular instance the drawing technique is originally exploited. A sequence of blue-line drawings on a black background depicts Ivan’s plans to catch the Firebird. The simple and caricature-like traits of the drawings illustrate Ivan’s childlike logic in a stylized and witty way. In contraposition to this sketchy and quite primitive sequence, some original, although anachronistic, devices illustrate a view of a modern world dominated by computer technology (perhaps a self-referential note about the making of the film):  the stone at the crossroad resembles an interactive screen; while the king navigates on the magical plate as on a trackpad, his fingers moving to enlarge images and change their view angle. Although these expedients create a discrepancy between the story time and the modern technological gimmicks, they represent a further effort to create a common language with contemporary spectators. Similarly, specific references to other films illustrate a comparable attempt to reach modern audiences. Examples can be found in the scene with a hedgehog disappearing in the fog carrying his little bundle, much alike the main character in Iurii Norstein’s famous The Hedgehog in the Fog; or the scene in which Kikimora turns her face to reveal her true diabolic identity under the feature of Helen the Beautiful, which is a clear reference to horror movies and specifically to the end of the old celebrated Michael Jackson’s video clip Thriller (1983).

pero zhar ptitsyThe numerous quotations certainly challenge a definition of this film in terms of genre. The film has elements of folktale as discussed above, but also traits of comedy, such as some laughable visual gags, a few puns, and specific comedic devices—such as the depiction of a fight conveyed not through direct images, but through sound and witnesses’ facial expression. There are also specific features from other genres. Japanese anime and postmodern action movies are clearly referenced in the characters’ depiction, hyperbolic deeds, martial art influence, and simulated camera movements. Action movies are also quoted by presenting a stereotypical sexy and invincible female hero walking out of a foggy battle camp swinging her hips and beaming a glorious look after defeating the enemies (in this film, ironically, the enemies are some mean squirrels). Besides, a clear reference to western movies comes at the end with some buildup tension created by the characters’ motionless wait before striking the first hit. The overall tone is light and the film occasionally succeeds to be entertaining, but for the most part the film seems to drag. Not only are events and characters inadequately developed, but also the rhythm is not accurately calculated, especially in scenes that require fast pacing, such as chases or those containing visual puns.

pero zhar ptitsySometimes only the music helps the film to recover from the dragging rhythm. The upbeat soundtrack written by Mikhail Chertishev (who also composed the music for The Three Bogatyrs series) and arranged by the renowned rock group Uma2rman is captivating and every so often it suitably underlines the events depicted in the films. However, the music is not always properly employed. The scenes in which people dressed in traditional costumes lose themselves to dance to a disco-remake of folk-music feel utterly out of place. Besides, these scenes appear as isolated events without a connection or justification with the rest of the film.

It seems that most contemporary Russian animators have a common eagerness to adapt long-feature animated film to the westernized taste of Russian youngsters. This approach is less evident in short animated films, probably because the producers are less concerned with widening the sphere of spectatorship in order to face the high cost of lengthy films. However, pleasing all kinds of audience—from young children, to teenagers and adults—is an arduous task, especially in a country rich with a good-hearted, folk-based, traditional animation. Grown-ups still judge the film according to this tradition; teenagers demand action, fun, and American-style entertainment movies; the younger group is caught in the middle. We can only wish that Russian animators soon will conceive a creative and artistic version of this hodgepodge so popular at the moment that would offer their audiences a valid alternative to imported, long-feature animation.

Laura Pontieri


1] There is another recent film based on the same folktale Ivan Tsarevitch and the Grey Wolf (Vladimir Toropchin, 2011) produced by the studio Melnitsa. The storyline of this film, though, departs from the folktale much more freely than How To Catch the Firebird’s Feather.

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How to Catch the Firebird’s Feather, Russia, 2013
Color, 80 minutes
Directors: Georgii Gitis, Viacheslav Plotnikov
Scriptwriter: Irina Mizrakhi
Art Director: Aleksandr Efremov
Producers: Sergei Sel’ianov, Alkeksandr Ligai, Sergei Rapoport
Composer: Mikhail Chertishchev
Editing: Sergei Minakin
Voices: Mikahil Ozerov, Dmitrii Diuzhev, Iuliia Savicheva, Andrei Leonov, Nonna Grishaeva, Aleksei Kolgan, Mikhail Khrustalev, Anatolii Petrov, Iuliia Galdun, Vladimir Gorbunov

Georgii Gitis, Viacheslav Plotnikov: How to Catch the Firebird’s Feather (Kak poimat’ pero zhar-ptitsy, 2013).

reviewed by Laura Pontieri© 2014