Issue 59 (2018)

Fedor Dmitriev, Vladimir Toropchin, Darina Shmidt: Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers (Urfin Dzhius i ego dereviannye soldaty, 2017)

reviewed by Olga Blackledge© 2018

urfinAs of December 2017, Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers is the latest animated feature released by the St Petersburg animation studio Melnitsa (The Mill), and it is the studio’s only 3D project. Melnitsa was founded in 1999 with the purpose of producing an animated TV mini-series based on L. Frank Baum’s famous book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). Melnitsa’s popularity, however, is mostly connected with its output of 2D animated full-length features based on traditional Russian folklore characters—bogatyrs (heroes)—with traditional folklore plot lines and contemporary humor. The studio’s next animated feature, Three Heroes and the Princess of Egypt (Tri bogatyria i printsessa Egipta), the release of which is scheduled for 28 December 2017, is also 2D, and continues the bogatyrs’ saga. 

urfinIn 2011, however, when Melnitsa started its first and only 3D project, the studio went back to the same story that originally inspired its founding, to The Wizard of Oz. This time, however, the literary source was a book written by the Soviet writer Aleksandr Volkov. In the post-Soviet space, Volkov is exceptionally famous for his books about a fairytale land and the Emerald City, the first one of which, The Wizard of the Emerald City (Volshebnik izumrudnogo goroda, 1939), was a retelling of Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. His next book, Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers (1963), although it was set in the same fairytale land and had the same characters, was an original story about the power-thirsty Urfin, who seizes the Emerald City, and is defeated by a motley crew of friends from the first book—Ellie, a girl from Kansas, Totoshka, along with her little dog, and the familiar trio: Wise Scarecrow (Strashila) who in the previous book becomes the ruler of the Emerald City, Iron Lumberjack (Drovosek), and Brave Lion. Since this is the second time that Melnitsa has made use of these same characters, the adaptation of the story about Urfin can be considered a sequel to the studio’s TV series Adventures in Emerald City (Prikliucheniia v izumrudnom gorode, 1999–2000).

urfinThough Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers is done in 3D, and is similar to other Melnitsa’s projects in terms of its aesthetics—the film imagery is rather simplistic and lacks detail. Another similarity is the use of verbal humor—Melnitsa’s films employ contemporary every-day language with jokes referring to contemporary everyday phenomena. Moreover, like Melnitsa’s other films, Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers is only loosely based on its literary source. The plot summary of the animated film and the book are roughly the same. Urfin, a carpenter who lives near Munchkin City as an outsider, comes into possession of a magic powder that turns inanimate objects into animate ones. He uses the powder to create an army of wooden soldiers, and starts a war against the whole fairytale land. His main target is the Emerald City—he wants to become its ruler. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to take the city by force, he tricks his way into it with the help of a traitor, and establishes his rule, having captured Wise Scarecrow and Iron Lumberjack. His rule, however, does not last long—the city is liberated by Ellie, Totoshka, and the Brave Lion.

urfinDespite its broad resemblance to the book, the story featured in the animated film has been considerably altered. By contrast with the Ellie from the book who, together with her uncle, comes back to the fairytale land in order to save her friends from Urfin, the animated Ellie arrives in the fairytale land by accident—she happens to try on the magic shoes. Moreover, the animated Ellie is not the same Ellie who participated in the events of the first story—she is the original Ellie’s granddaughter, a typical contemporary teenager. In the film, Ellie, inspired by her dog Totoshka, who once in the fairytale land discovers the ability to talk, initially perceives the fairytale land not as a reality, but as the space of a computer game—she and Totoshka see everything that happens to them as a quest, and celebrate the overcoming of obstacles they encounter on their way as the moving up of levels in the game. Presenting Ellie and Totoshka as confused and mistaken as to the fairytale nature of their environment, Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers makes a cultural commentary about the morphological affinity of folk and fairy-tales with quest computer games—in both of them the main characters encounter creatures who provide clues prompting their actions, and the development of the narrative requires the completion of specific tasks. The film also comments on how perception of reality as a game changes gamers’ attitudes towards it: although they are excited, they ultimately become distant and uninvolved. The transformation and growth of the character of Ellie that occurs in the film is connected with her changing view of her environment and the creatures that she meets—she starts believing that what happens to her is real, i.e. that it can have an irreversible physical effect on her; she stops perceiving the inhabitants of the fairytale land as alien and unrelated, and starts sympathizing with them. And although she acts as a “typical teenager” rather than as a hero—she is more interested in getting back home than helping others—she starts feeling for the residents of the fairytale land, and ends up saving them in the climactic scene of the film.

urfinAnother significant difference between the book and the film lies in the nature of their central conflicts. If the book is a story about power and a struggle for it, then the animated film is a melodrama about love and belonging. In the book, Urfin is driven by the desire for power, gaining which is his ultimate life goal. Initially, he becomes an assistant to a wicked witch Gingema (the Wicked Witch of the East in Baum’s book), and enjoys such tasks as collecting the levy from Gingema’s subjects. After Gingema’s death, once he gets hold of the magic powder, his sole desire becomes to occupy and subordinate the whole fairytale land, and for that he creates his own army and invades. The animated Urfin seems more confused than determined. The audience gets a glimpse into his childhood, and sees him as a person who searches for love and acknowledgement, but because he is too self-conscious and unsociable, turns into an outsider. Even as an adult, he still admires the life of munchkins, but with age he grows angrier towards them because he cannot participate in their social activities. Once he has occupied the Emerald City, and found Gingema’s Magic Book (a plot twist that is also absent from the book), Urfin first asks the book to make everybody love him, and only later changes his mind and wants the book to destroy the city and its inhabitants. The romantic connection between Urfin and Milena, a girl he met when they were kids, who seems to still like him after all these years, is a plot line that makes Urfin’s character more complex and human compared to the one-dimensional, power-driven Urfin from the book. This plot line deepens the film’s melodramatic dimension, as does the climactic battle of a technological monster (a nod to the technological constructions that populate Japanese animation) with the residents of the Emerald City. This, in turn replaces the stand-off between Urfin and his army with the residents of two cities described in the book. The scene of the battle also asserts the primacy of the power of magic over technology. The good old traditional magic helps to defeat the technological monster created by the evil power of Gingema’s Magic Book, and makes the residents of the fairytale land free and happy.

urfinThe book and the film also differ in the role the community plays in the resistance against the invader, Urfin, and his army. In the book, the ruler of the Emerald City—Wise Scarecrow—protects the city from the invaders only with the help of two soldiers, while the residents of the city prefer to stay at home and not get involved, in the film, however, the whole city comes out to the fortification to fight against Urfin’s army, showing solidarity and community spirit. Upon occupation of the city, the ambitious Urfin decides to rename it into Urfingrad, which, on the one hand, is a traditional Russian way to name a city by creating a compound word with the morpheme grad (city), but on the other hand, since grad is combined with Urfin’s first name, is reminiscent of changing the name of St. Petersburg into Petrograd in the beginning of WWI, on the wave of rising anti-German sentiments. A parallel between Urfingrad and Petrograd, the cradle of the October Revolution that initiated tremendous changes in the Russian Empire, might seem to be far-fetched, if it was not for the emphasis that the film places on the role of collective action. The film makes a clear statement that a change is possible only when everybody becomes involved. The last scene of the film also supports such a reading. After Urfin’s defeat, Ellie cannot go back to Kansas because her magic shoes have lost their magic power. She and her friends try to revive the shoes by chanting a spell, but it all seems pointless—the shoes do not respond. But then, following a little boy who continues intoning the spell after the friends stop saying it, the whole city repeats it, and the shoes regain their magic power. The final scene reinforces the film’s message—changes are created by the whole community, and people have to raise their voices for change to happen. The film also obviously prioritizes the younger generation as more sensitive and more capable of seeing social transformation as possible. This message is more than topical for the contemporary Russian society, but whether the film is an actual call for a social change, or it is simply an allusion to the historical events that took place one hundred years ago in Petrograd is a question for audiences to ponder.

Images from CTB/Melnitsa website

Olga Blackledge
University of Pittsburgh

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Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers, Russia, 2017
75 minutes, animated, 3D, color
Directors Fedor Dmitriev, Darina Shmidt, Vladimir Toropchin
Scriptwriters Aleksandr Boiarskii, Darina Shmidt, Aleksandr Volkov
Music Mikhail Chertishchev
Visual Effects Viktor Loschilov
Cast Dmitrii Diuzhev, Konstantin Khabenskii, Ekaterina Gorokhovskaia, Sergei Shnurov
Producers Aleksandr Boiarskii, Sergei Selianov,, Anton Zlatopolskii
Production CTB Film Company, Melnitsa Animation Studio

Fedor Dmitriev, Vladimir Toropchin, Darina Shmidt: Urfin and His Wooden Soldiers (Urfin Dzhius i ego dereviannye soldaty, 2017)

reviewed by Olga Blackledge© 2018

Updated: 2018