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Konstantin Bronzit, Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent [Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei] (2004)

reviewed by David MacFadyen©2005

 

Russian feature-length animation has (re)appeared. In the winter of 2004, new children’s cartoons were distributed to movie theaters on a scale that unnerved the makers of adult, live-action spectacles. While Night Watch (Timur Bekmambetov, 2004) was initially released in a print run of 300 copies, the children’s feature Nutcracker and the Mouse King (Shchelkunchik i Myshinyi korol'; dir. Anatolii Iabbarov, 2004) was doing the rounds of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major cities with a most respectable 190 prints.

Another animated (and domestically produced) narrative, Neznaika and Barrabass (Svetlana Grossu and Vladimir Gagurin, 2004) was simultaneously replicated in 100 prints. Children were once again making serious, market-defining choices between homegrown animation and live action. Gratifyingly, much of this success came from studios that emerged after the sad demise of state-sponsored animation in the USSR, in particular of Soiuzmul'tfil'm.

Most impressive of these cartoons of 2004 was the film under review here. In the first four weeks of its release across Russia’s urban centers, Alesha Popovich―with 200 prints available to distributors―brought in $1.7 million. The newspaper Delovoi Peterburg has recently discussed this impressive figure in greater detail. The animation studio itself, Mel'nitsa (Windmill), directly received 30% of the profits, with which it began to pay both investors and its own staff. According to a standard deal, the cinemas garnered a larger 50% of earnings, leaving distributors with a 20% income. Money was (and remains) available to keep animation alive.

Such big numbers make for pleasant reading after the misery of ten years ago. At that time an article in the national press maintained, quoting Kierkegaard, that life should be lived forward and only understood backwards. There was no time to worry; one simply had to work, not theorize about an unclear future in advance. One should embrace this new “silver age” of “abstractionism, cubism, postmodernism and surrealism.” But there was no cash.

Conferences were held to sort matters out and new studios arose, like the digitally graphic emphases of Argus or the successful Pilot, no doubt heartened by the overseas birth of Ted Turner’s Cartoon Network in 1992. Pilot was the nation’s first independent cartoon studio and bagged more than fifty festival awards before its tenth birthday. Surviving the incursions of TV and business was, nonetheless, initially very difficult in a modern Catch-22. Some of the Russian standoffishness with regard to computer animation stemmed from a problem of education: it was not taught in art schools or colleges, hence the public saw no masterpieces created with it, and therefore it was not taught.

Moscow tried to help and established a festival for children’s education, the Golden Fish, named in honor of the classic cartoon The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish (Skazka o rybake i rybke; dir. Mikhail Tsekhanovskii, 1950), which soon attracted the sponsorship of Mayor Luzhkov and Mrs. Yeltsin.  Programs at similar festivals tried to intersperse canonized Soviet comedies with modern films to guarantee admiration for the past among today’s youth. What was animation doing with these last-minute retrospectives? Was it respecting and continuing the realist traditions of the past or fashioning the future? The big features of today still address these same issues.

Things are certainly looking up for those traditions. Central in the attempts to handle today’s financial pressures has been the Mel'nitsa studio of St. Petersburg. In 2003 it released Long-Nose the Dwarf (Karlik nos; dir. Il'ia Maksimov), trumpeted (with moot accuracy) as “Russia’s First Theatrically Released Animated Feature in Forty Years.” For several months it ran in second place among all domestic films and all genres throughout urban cinemas.

Now, in 2004, the same studio, under the guidance of Konstantin Bronzit, has produced Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent, based upon the famous epic tale, itself a product of ancient military conflict around Rostov.  Bronzit, who also dubs the voice of Tugarin, is a Petersburg native and erstwhile student of Fedor Khitruk. Since his 1988 debut The Roundabout (Karusel'), his reputation has grown swiftly, specifically following the critical reception of two shorts: At the End of the World (Na kraiu zemli, 1998) and The God (Bog, 2003). Those two brief features alone have received over eighty international prizes. It should be said, though, that Bronzit considers much of this success due to the well-funded ability of French distributor Folimage to “bombard” a wide range of festivals with the former film.

 

Alesha Popovich, on a much grander scale of 75 minutes, debuted in North America on May 1st, 2005 at Toronto’s international film festival for children, Sprockets, where it was titled simply as Alosha. The promotional text used to move Russian history from one cold country to another reads as follows:

Many years ago in the Russian town of Rostov, there lived a child. This, however, was not just any child: this was Alosha―the child who would become the bravest, strongest, kind-hearted hero in all the land.

Growing up, Alosha’s strength is well known, but his smarts take a while to catch up―his many blunders get him into a bunch of trouble. Finally, one fateful day, he is tested. The fearsome army of Tugarin arrives in Rostov, demanding that the town surrender its gold. Fearing the worst, the citizens of Rostov call on Alosha. Surely he will save them!

Unfortunately, Alosha’s plan goes awry, the Tugarin army escapes with the gold and the city of Rostov is demolished. Ashamed of his failure, Alosha vows to get back the gold and regain his good name.

So begins the hero’s quest. Joined by the comical crew of his devoted uncle, his spunky fiancée, her nagging grandmother, their stoic donkey and an exceptionally talkative horse, Alosha embarks on a rollicking adventure that will have you howling with laughter―when you’re not on the edge of your seat trying to take in all the action.

In interviews surrounding the film, Bronzit has spoken of this feature as a way to solve and surpass the problems of the mid-1990s. He also addresses the “national” issues of a Russian story, made in Russia to aid that same nation’s cinema―using, nonetheless, an aesthetic that owes much to American craftsmanship (both verbal and visual). This complicated definition of a nationally specific cartoon recalls some very Soviet insecurities. Bronzit, for example, has been keen to point out that employment outside Slavdom does not lessen the cultural specificity or validity of his art.  His time in France working on At the End of the World was not of significance to his Russian modus operandi; as additional defense, he refers to Andrei Tarkovskii as a Russian craftsman similarly unaffected by his place of work.

Bronzit’s study with Khitruk and Eduard Nazarov is also key to his outlook, to the point that their worldview became his second nature; it still operates “under his skin.” We will return to Khitruk’s authority a little later, because it helps to deflect some criticism of America’s influence in Alesha Popovich, in particular the similarity between Alesha’s wisecracking horse and Eddie Murphy’s garrulous donkey in Shrek and Shrek 2 (Andrew Adamson et al., 2001 and 2004). Although Bronzit has said he can only watch Shrek 2 with a “gun placed to his head,” he admits that Russian animation has always learned its skills “like a child, through imitation.” The difference between these two national arts is that “they [in the US] make money, while we make cinema,” as he told the newspaper Argumenty i fakty.

A rather acrimonious debate began recently between the publications Russkii vestnik and Moskva concerning this (financially-driven) debt to American visual lore versus any (socially proper) obligation to Russia. Folkloric animation from Moscow and beyond has been stuck in this rut for more than half a century. When the matter, for example, arose after WWII as to how Moscow’s cartoons might invigorate themselves, Soviet historians and commentators concurred that folklore was attractive to animators because of “non-canonical themes and images.” But how could something so profoundly traditional be both reassuring and non-canonical or novel? Folklore was certainly an art form of prestigious, national provenance but also deemed to be of “eternal” relevance and contemporaneity, since folktales known today are folktales told today. Such was the argument (over and over).

Moskva claimed in March 2005 that children today, however, have entirely forgotten folklore and, therefore, a witty, self-deprecating use of “serious” legends is potentially detrimental. The serious archetype needs to reestablish itself before being subjected to any silliness. Cartoons used to (and still should) address important “pedagogical” issues, such as correct social behavior and a respect for authority.  In Alesha Popovich, Sergei Makovetskii dubs the voice of a Kievan prince; his performance lacks all reverence for courtly propriety, and presents the prince as “cowardly, greedy, sly―and homosexual.” All in all, said Moskva, in no uncertain terms, this amounts to a loud and irresponsible critique of Putin’s role in modern Russian society.

The assumed stability of valued stereotypes is mocked on many occasions in this cartoon.  This occurs on both historical and stylistic levels―that is, the degree to which proper storylines are respected (and here again, there is a discernable nod in the direction of Shrek).  Take, for example, a moment where characters are dispatched into danger.  The hero and heroine, we are told, need to survive this tale (of martial conflict) in order to reach its dénouement (of marital cohesion).  They, therefore, should not be sent off to unspeakable danger; minor figures, of little importance to the plot, should do the job.  Such is the argument put forward by Alesha’s arrogant steed.  And, in a similar spirit, the voice used by Dmitrii Vysotskii to dub that same horse sounds a great deal like comedian Maksim Galkin whenever he ridicules Nikita Mikhalkov’s grandstanding in his nationally-broadcast skits for a number of TV variety shows.

The dark forces facing these heroes are similarly “tweaked” in order to make solemn, adequate enemies more modern (and more fun, too).  Though the “Muslim” nature of Tugarin’s threat is named explicitly and early on, any geopolitical wrangling of the past is soon displaced by jokes about the Mafia, marketplace conmen, suspect lottery tickets, and the all-important need for “connections in high places” to escape any of these threats today.

So what is the nature of this patriotism or national “community” that Moskva and Russkii vestnik think has been ruined?  The film opens with a warning, drawn with gentle mockery from the Rostov chronicles, that Russia’s enemies should remember one thing above all else: “Russia has stood for an age and will not waver.”  Likewise, the maturation of Alesha (who grows “by the hour” physically and somewhat more slowly in his ethical conduct) uses nationally treasured folkloric or even hagiographic models of personal development.  It is here that core issues of Soviet animation resonate, if for no other reason than they have never been resolved: How much of an (acceptable) overlap is there between the audience-driven communities of fun, laughter, sympathy, national policy, and―perhaps―faith?

Alesha, for example, as he leaves to fight Tugarin, is told that massed social forces will not cohere “without money, without weapons, or without friendship.” And when he actually begins his quest on the road to Tugarin’s camp, the song he offers his fellow travelers is so miserable it prompts thoughts of suicide.  Only his horse’s jollier, funnier, and more upbeat alternative keeps the friends together―so that they can defeat Tugarin.  The point where one might wish to get off this long train from history to hilarity is an unavoidably subjective matter. Discussion of its “proper” stopping point quickly becomes both crabby and irritatingly propaedeutic.

It is here that we can look to Khitruk’s lessons learned by his student.  Bronzit does what Khitruk always did: they both use wit to sketch serious tales of better social existence―and do so with one eye on the American competition.  A good example would be Khitruk’s Story of a Crime (Istoriia odnogo prestupleniia, 1962).  Its style reflects the aesthetics of the UPA studio in America as a Western challenge to Disney’s predominant, profitable aesthetic of fun.  Khitruk’s film is based upon flat chromatic blocks, stylized in accelerated, jerky motions to represent nervous bodies, overworked cars, and other overly mobile forms.  The funny (or tragicomic) narrative that jumpstarts these simplified, essential blocks of nervousness is a reconsideration of twenty-four hours.

In a city of irritating vices, such as indolence, smoking, and bad dress habits, our modest, unassuming hero suffers a series of noisy neighbors.  He cannot sleep, and is kept awake by a rowing couple, a raucous wedding reception, and poor plumbing.  When, after all this, a woman screams out loudly in the courtyard below at dawn, the central character can stand no more.  He runs downstairs and hits her hard across the back of the head with a frying pan.  Then the narrator intervenes and asks the viewer to consider all events of the last twenty-four hours, for only then will he or she “understand everything.”  Eventually, just as the story and culpability appear resolved in the closing seconds, a truck rolls into the courtyard and the driver makes a terrible noise unloading his cargo.  Now, educated by the suffering of his or her unfortunate neighbors, every resident of the apartment building is horrified by the driver’s behavior.  Here, in a radical revelation of petty vices, we are invited to understand and then forgive the comedy’s hero.  To understand is to forgive; a very un-Stalinist and often inexplicable idiom for social being in tough times.

This visual philosophy of Bronzit’s teacher was clearer still in The Island (Ostrov), which picked up the Grand Prix at Cannes in 1974.  One man stands on an island the size of a dining table (in time-honored cartoon fashion, topped with a diminutive palm tree).  The emotional, passionate motion of an epic is “diminished” to the space of its very origin, the human body of the hero, who is a naked, almost troll-like individual.  He has a mop of unkempt hair, huge eyes, and a big nose.  He seems a disrespected hero, but empathy turns him from a joke into what the Soviet press called a “multifaceted, real hero.”  Khitruk’s films were very Soviet, very funny, equally serious, and internationally respected.  The petulant critics of Alesha Popovich should take another look at their history books and dust off a few films from the 1960s and 1970s.  Bronzit hasn’t spoiled or disrespected anything―even if his equine sidekick talks a lot like Eddie Murphy.

David MacFadyen, University of California, Los Angeles  


Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent, Russia, 2004

Color animation, 72 minutes

Director: Konstantin Bronzit  
Screenplay: Maksim Sveshnikov, Konstantin Bronzit, Il'ia Maksimov, and Aleksandr Boiarskii

Music: Valentin Vasenkov

Sound: Vladimir Golounin

Voices: Oleg Kulikovich, Anatolii Petrov, Liia Medvedeva, Natal'ia Danilova, Dmitrii Vysotskii, Ivan Krasko, Sergei Makovetskii, Tat'iana Ivanova, and Konstantin Bronzit.

Narrator: Mikhail Cherniak.

Producers: Sergei Sel'ianov and Aleksandr Boiarskii

Production: Mel'nitsa and CTB Film Co.

Some of the above journalistic material can be found at: www.aleshapopovich.ru (together with trailers, stills, wallpaper and a children’s Flash game, based upon the movie). Stills from www.ctb.ru.


Konstantin Bronzit, Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent [Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei] (2004)

reviewed by David MacFadyen©2005

10/07/05