Issue 50 (2015)

Sergei Seregin: The Secret of the Sukharev Tower: The Wizard of Balance. (Taina Sukharevskoi Bashni: Charodei Ravnovesiia, 2015).

reviewed by Laura Pontieri© 2015

charodeiIt’s the end of the 17th century, Tsar Peter the Great is reigning over Russia. A faithful companion, the astronomer, mathematician and wizard Jakob Bruce, entertains him with mechanical inventions. A mysterious character comes to the palace with new ingenuous devices aimed to discredit Bruce; he is the Violet Wizard, the evil Master of black magic. The Violet Wizard needs to access the Gate to the World from which he was banished some time ago; in order to do so, the Spirit of Darkness tells him to look for the Wizard of Balance. The Violet Wizard soon discovers that Bruce is indeed the Wizard of Balance in charge of keeping the equilibrium between Good and Evil and protecting the Gate to the World—located at the top of the Sukharev tower—from evil forces. Petia, Bruce’s pupil, accidentally learns of the Violet Wizard’s evil plans against his master and rushes to the tower to warn Bruce and his daughter Margo. While Petia is there, he unintentionally tears the Manuscript of Balance in which Bruce’s magical force is inscribed. In order to restore Bruce’s force and thus maintain the balance between Good and Evil, the manuscript needs to be re-written with three magical artifacts (a parchment from dragon hide, a steel griffon feather, and magic snake ink). Bruce sends Petia and his daughter Margo to the Magical Kingdoms in search of them, and in the meantime, he tries to tame the evil sorcerer, who is still subtly attempting to influence Peter the Great with his magic in order to get rid of Bruce and obtain the key to the Sukharev Tower.

This is the story of Sergei Seregin’s latest film The Secret of the Sukharev Tower: The Wizard of Balance. The long expected feature film follows the series of 8 episodes with the general title of The secret of the Sukharev Tower. The idea for a feature film came first, but financial problems compelled the directors to initially release 13-minute episodes.

charodeiThe plan for the production of the film and the series went hand in hand. The process was long and quite elaborate. The first idea of a film with the characters of Bruce, Margo and Petia came from a script written by Anatolii Volodin and Elena Gabets. The script went through numerous revisions aimed to fit a long feature production. Some fundamental changes forced the script to be re-written extensively a few times. One of these changes involved the character Cube (Kubik), who in the original script was relegated to only the episode in the Iron Town, while Petia and Margo were accompanied from world to world by a little cat. Once the director and scriptwriters decided to assign the companion role to Cube instead of the cat, the entire script needed to be changed.

While the script was undergoing several revisions, the group released a few episodes thanks to some limited financial support. The episodes allowed the creative team to test the story and the characters. The use of the same actors in both the series and the film permitted some continuity in the process, but there was one downfall in releasing the series first: the characters appeared from nowhere and their relation was ambiguous. Questions about the origin of the characters were only answered with the subsequent long feature film. The series, though, provided the artists with some valuable lessons—the graphics were improved and refined, resulting in more meticulously depicted characters and movements.

A sequel of the film is already planned; both script and storyboard are completed, but once again lack of funds compelled the directors to halt production. Sergei Gavrilov is still the artist director for the sequel; Sergei Seregin (together with Andrei Shchitkovyi) is in charge of the script but not the direction, which is now in the hands of Sonia Kravtsova. The authors of this project plan to release three feature films of the cycle “The Secret of the Sukharev Tower,” and at the moment the studio Master-Film is producing a new series of 52 short episodes. Each episode, 11 minutes long, will be screened as a complete and independent story.

The film is presented as “historical fantasy” and was advertised as having a strong historical background, but in reality the authentic events or facts are very limited. The background provides only superficial insights into late 17th century Russia, with old Moscow architecture, references to the School of Navigation and Mathematics founded in 1701, reforms undertaken by Peter the Great and influences of Western culture during his reign. The historical characters develop in complete fantasy. Tsar Peter the Great looks like a grown-up child uniquely interested in mechanical toys, his figure is caricaturized and devoid of any regal allusion. Jacob Bruce, historically a military leader, scholar, astronomer and scientist very close to Peter the Great, is presented almost exclusively as the inventor and mysterious magician as he appears in the many legends that were popular at the time. Bruce’s eclectic talents and the observatory he built on the top of the Sukharev Tower - the first in Russia - probably awoke the curiosity of Muscovites who created many myths around the tower and Bruce himself.

charodeiThe Sukharev Tower, built in Moscow by order of Peter the Great in 1692-5, was demolished in 1934 despite the protest of Muscovites and architects against Stalin’s mandate. The fascinating myths and historical facts around the tower and Bruce brought Sergei Seregin not only to direct the film in question, but also to make a documentary film—in production at the moment—about the real historical figure of Jacob Bruce.

Notwithstanding the few factual references, the film develops in complete fantasy and the majority of the film takes place in various magical kingdoms. The story itself is compelling, the adventures are original, and the worlds created are unique. The script, though, lacks a strong cohesion between the episodes. The spectator feels that the film is a sum of various episodes glued together. This outcome is enhanced by the diversity of the worlds presented on the screen, which, while captivating the attention of the spectator, evokes a sensation of disjointedness. This is even more enhanced in the episode at the Iron City, which develops an inner story that seems unjustified and detached from the rest of the film.

Similarly to the short films, wherein each episode enthralled the spectators through intense actions followed by an abrupt denouement, in the feature film, the plot is created as a series of climaxes, where the tension is steadily built and the tight rhythm does not allow many instances of relief in between the packed events. The few moments that aim to relieve the tension are not always very successful. An example is the serpents’ interlude of dance and music, which lacks cohesion with the rest of the episode and is not effective from a graphic point of view. However, the music here is compelling and presents a silly outcome that could be gladly greeted by the young spectators.

In general, the music by Dmitrii Rybnikov, who already worked with Sergei Seregin in his previous film Alice’s Birthday (2009)—successfully follows the rhythm and enhances the mood and atmosphere of each episode. A call-in for funds organized through the Internet site allowed the team to gather enough resources to have the original score played by a full orchestra. The effect is worth the effort.

Moments of relief also arrive in the form of jokes, but they are rare and sometimes repetitive with a consequent loss of comic effect, as in the recurring joke that plays on Cube’s name and his actual cylindrical shape. charodeiThe character of Cube is probably the most successful expedient for breaking the tense rhythm and offering some sporadic relief from the vicissitudes that tightly permeate the entire film. His body in the shape of an open, dented, beaten up and useless tin can calls for the sympathy of the young spectators. In contrast  to the usual verbose characters’ annoying loquacity, Cube’s presence and naïveté is more captivating than irritating. Cube is also the most successful character in terms of animation; his expressions and movements, although stylized, skillfully fit its shape and character.

The film was made in classical drawn animation with the help of computer technology. The use of drawn animation by a talented artist such as Sergei Gavrilov gives the film a warm atmosphere. The heroes appear livelier than those made in the cold, purely computer generated animation, which is now internationally accepted. Some characters’ movements, though, are not always fully developed in a smooth way; the animation flaws are most notable in the snakes’ moves and in the figure of Peter the Great, who is poorly illustrated and whose movements are scantily developed.

The background is enticing and its bright colors are alluring; it shows worlds unique in style or originally developed from ideas drawn from classic science-fiction films (some elements remind me of Kin-dza-dza or its animation version Ku! Kin-dza-dza), or from international cartoons and anime, with a noticeable leaning towards Miyazaki’s animation. The stairs between the magical worlds resemble those in the famous existentialist short film Stairs (1979)made by the Polish animator Stefan Schabenbeck. Additional elements drawn from fantasy films recur from time to time, namely Petia’s resemblance to Harry Potter when in charge of some magical feats.

charodeiThe graphic presentation of the film and its lively style are certainly entertaining, but the film relies on action and rhythm and fails to promote identification with the characters or, more notably, to convey a precise message or moral. In this film, values such as courage, friendship, and the readiness to accept and remedy the consequences of one’s actions are only hastily hinted at, and are quickly lost in the fast-paced succession of deeds. The moral of the film—Good is stronger than Evil—is nicely emphasized in the last scene, when Petia defeats the evil wizard but also saves him from death—a gentle twist on the usual merciless defeat of the enemy. But somehow even this last action seems to be diminished by the series of events.

A prevalence of action over psychological development is forgivable in short entertaining cartoons, but not so in feature films during which even a young spectator can relate to a more careful depiction and development of the characters’ inner world and a deeper message.

In The Secret of the Sukharev Tower, the main characters are one-dimensional and not fully psychologically developed. Petia turns into a sorcerer in a matter of minutes; Margo does not have any specific trait other than nagging Petia. Both sorcerers are ambiguous. Bruce seems to be a nice and caring father but he sends his daughter and pupil on dangerous adventures without the slightest concern. The evil sorcerer himself is not thoroughly and clearly motivated; the script barely conveys his reasons to access the tower and his transformations. Furthermore, some of the characters’ actions are not fully explained, in particular the evil sorcerer’s fellows. They develop an independent line once they decide to pursue their own interests and abandon their master. Their plans are hurriedly explained and their fate is puzzling.

charodeiThe film is recommended for children over 6 years of age but I doubt that a young spectator could easily follow the rationale behind some events. Furthermore, the first scene might alienate the younger audience or set the wrong tone for the film. The film begins with the evil sorcerer and the personified skull image of the Spirit of Darkness. The scene is pointedly frightening and promises the young audience a terrifying viewing experience. In reality, fearful scenes are rare and limited to the beginning and end of the film. Children, indeed, seem to like the film, as attested by the Grand Prix recently awarded by a jury made up of children at the Аll-Russian Festival of Visual Arts at the Children Center “Orlenok”.

Certainly, the film can be entertaining for a range of audiences, and it is necessary to bear in mind that the target audience is children. In this sense, the film is successful, it appeals to the spectator who looks for adventures, and the one who is fascinated by original creatures and fantastic worlds depicted in bright and captivating colors. A teenager might find the characters too simple to identify with, but the rhythm keeps all audiences engaged to the end.

Most of the problems in the film seem to originate in the superficial script: lack of character development, disjointed episodes, and lack of suitable moments of relief. The director of the film Sergei Seregin, however, promises for the sequel a new script, in which characters psychologically evolve and show a deeper dimension. We need to hope for timely financial support to see this new project accomplished.

Laura Pontieri
University of Toronto

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The Secret of the Sukharev Tower: The Wizard of Balance. Russia, 2015
Director: Sergei Seregin
Scriptwriters: Anatolii Vologdin, Elena Gabets, Sergei Seregin
Producers: Aleksandr Gerasimov, Mariia Drozdova
Composer: Dmitrii Rybnikov
Art Director: Sergei Gavrilov
Editing: Sergei Seregin
Voices: Prokhor Chekhovskoi (Petia), Ol’ga Shorokhova (Margo), Diomid Vinogradov (Kubik), Aleksandr Taran’zhin (Bruce), Stanislav Duzhnikov (Peter the Great), Vadim Demchog (Fioletovyi)

Sergei Seregin: The Secret of the Sukharev Tower: The Wizard of Balance. (Taina Sukharevskoi Bashni: Charodei Ravnovesiia, 2015).

reviewed by Laura Pontieri© 2015