Issue 58 (2017)

Manuk Depoyan: The Dragon Spell (Mykyta Kozhumyaka, Ukraine, 2016)

reviewed by Laura Pontieri© 2017

nikita kozhemyakaThe significance of The Dragon Spell in the panorama of contemporary animation lies less in its aesthetic achievements than in the fact that it is the first attempt to bring Ukrainian animation into the international market of 3D computer animation. The desire of the Studio Panama Grand Prix to promote their animation as a truly Ukrainian product is evident in the choice of subject matter drawn from the traditional old Slavic Folk Tale, in which the exceptionally strong leather-maker Nikita Kozhemyaka (Nikita the Tanner, also known as Kirill Kozhemyaka in some versions of the tale) defeats a terrible dragon threatening Kyiv.

In this sequel to the folk tale, an old magician, Darius, summons the legendary bogatyr Kozhemyaka to prepare for a new fight with the terrible dragon he overthrew years before. The dragon’s skin hangs as a trophy in Kozhemyaka’s house but its soul—which dwells in the body of a nymph from the enchanted forest—is gaining strength again. Darius informs Kozhemyaka of a bewitched flower upon which depends the destiny of the dragon. If the dragon comes into its possession, its power will be completely restored.

The story, however, does not focus on the traditional hero, but on his son Nikita (Nicky), who, in his attempts to emulate his father, finds a way to enter the magical world with Eddie, Darius’s apprentice bat. Once in the enchanted forest, Nicky and Eddie meet an inhabitant of the magical world, a little girl named Rocky, and together with her and her pet squirrel Kamikaze, they embark on a fantastic adventure to find the flower and defeat the dragon.

nikita kozhemyakaThe characters in this film are typical of fairy tales; Nikita’s family epitomizes the usual stereotypes: a strong but kind father, a muscular yet dumb son, a weak though determined kid, and a traditional mother, who, according to her husband, lacks physical power but has exceptional inner strength.

There is no attempt to develop the adult characters and any effort to give a glimpse of a deeper level of personality is quite unsuccessful, especially in the depiction of the mother. In general, the grown-ups are strikingly primitive both in terms of character-development and animation, merely fulfilling a framing role to Nikita’s adventures.

As in many films indebted to contemporary American animation, a talkative funny type could not be missed. This time, though, the goofy bat Eddie stirs the sympathy of the spectators. His big eyes, sweet smile, and his witty remarks transform its usually scary bat-features into an appealing character. The talkative mood, which is often annoying and overwhelming in similar American characters, is here discreet and divested of cheap humor.

nikita kozhemyakaThe dragon in the form of a human body appears in a mixture of beauty and scariness appropriate for fairy-tale evil women; the black shadows at her service are chilling in their resemblance to Dementors, although here, luckily, easy to defeat; the monster at the dragon’s service is more goofy than menacing; even the reincarnated dragon, despite the customary frightening features, is not excessively scary. The fearsome moments are limited in time and intensity, as they should be in an animated film for young viewers.

The two children, Nicky and Rocky, are full of life and appeal to a young audience with their adventurous spirit, but they are not thoroughly developed or interesting enough to catch the attention of older viewers.

nikita kozhemyakaGenerally, successful animated films try to entice both children and adults. This could be the reason why many contemporary cartoons try to emulate American style and graphic, which, judging from ticket sales, seem to be the most alluring for the Western audience. This film is clearly following this trend by opting for 3D computer animation, even mimicking advertising tactics—the promotional poster is clearly a reference to Shrek.

The marketing strategy might be successful in attracting varied audiences, but it inevitably invites comparison to foreign animation production. The experience and budget of American animation is hard to beat. The main technical flaws in this film, compared with more sophisticated foreign cartoons, are the basic development of character movements and, in particular, of the environment. The background has a baffling static quality; it seems to be in a vacuum, frozen around the moving characters. There is no sense of subtle movements in the grass, plants, or water that makes a place genuinely tactile and real.

nikita kozhemyakaCharacters too seem to come out of foreign films. Snails and mosquitoes look familiar, the characters’ big eyes resemble Japanese anime style, and Roksana and Nikita’s names turn into Rocky and Nicky.

The most successful element of the film is probably the depiction of the enchanted forest, attractive with its bright colors and funny creatures. Its lifelessness, though, detaches it from the characters and turns it into a primitive background. This flaw is overcome only in the scene in which Nicky and Rocky race on the snails and mosquitoes. The rhythm, the bright colors, and the inviting sound of an upbeat tune create a truly attractive atmosphere, which culminates in pink dandelions flying in the sky—maybe reminiscent of some foreign films, but still eye-catching. The music contributes to the rhythm and the fun of this exciting sequence without lowering the tone to silly dances that typically interrupt the action in modern animated films.

nikitaThe pace of the film is steady. The events unfold following parallel characters’ plot lines, often jumping from one to another by means of fade out. This simple device slows the rhythm, but makes the film more accessible and suitable for a younger audience. The last scene should be the most exciting, but somehow it is simplistic and lacks exhilaration. The defeat of the dragon culminates in an anti-climactic feeling. The action unfolds with a fast tempo but can be perceived as restrained—everything seems to unravel quickly, yet the reactions to events are somewhat delayed; for example, some barrels on the boat catch fire, but it takes the team a long time, considering the urgency, to get rid of them. Also, actions seem not to be linked by cause and effect, for example the flying boat hits a mountain but it still appears to fly with no major complications. The overall effect is an unbelievable sequence of events that leaves the spectator, or at least the grown-up audience, dissatisfied.

The end loosely reinforces the main idea of the film.  The director and scriptwriters insist on the message to believe in oneself and heartily value one’s inner strength. The idea is repeated throughout, but the film in itself presents a simplistic image of the question. Nikita is going to fight the dragon without preparation or any real ability to do so. His adventures seem dictated more by his convictions and the help of the people he meets—as customarily happens in classic fairy tales—than justified by his abilities. The idea that heart and brain are more important than physical strength is reiterated, but it seems that Nikita’s success is more a result of chance than intelligence.

Notwithstanding the flaws noted here, the film is entertaining and enjoyable for a varied range of spectators. Ukrainian audiences in particular might appreciate the focus on Ukrainian heritage, which is evident not only in the choice of the tale but also in the casting of Ukrainian personalities, from actors Viktor Andrienko, Ruslana Pisanka and Sergei Sikhovo, to the world famous Ukrainian weight-lifter Vasilii Virastiuk. 3D-animation is surely not a trait of traditional Ukrainian animation, nor is it in the realm of the Armenian director Manuk Depoyan’s expertise, but the choice stems from the desire to be national pioneers in the field and compete on the international animation market. Let us hope that Ukrainian animation will develop more originally from here.

Laura Pontieri
University of Toronto

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The Dragon Spell, CGI Animated Feature Film, Ukraine
Color, 1.85:1, DCP, 85 minutes
Based on the story by Anton Siyanika “Nicky Tanner” and on a script by Sergey Gavrilov
Director: Manuk Depoyan
Script: Elena Shulga, rewrite by Pamela Hickey and Dennys McCoy
DoP: Dmytro Nedrya
Editor: Svitlana Kutsenko
Art Director: Serhiy Mohylnyy
Composer: Serhiy Krutsenko
Producers: Igor Roma, Dmytro Belinkiy, Iryna Manzhosova
Production: Ukraine Animation Studio, Panama Grand Prix Animation

Manuk Depoyan: The Dragon Spell (Mykyta Kozhumyaka, Ukraine, 2016)

reviewed by Laura Pontieri© 2017

Updated: 2017