Mikhail Aldashin and Oleg Uzhinov: About Ivan the Fool (Pro Ivana Duraka), 2004

reviewed by Laura Pontieri Hlavacek© 2006

Winner of the prize for best direction at the 2005 Suzdal' Animated Film Festival, the prize for best film for children at the 2005 International Animated Film Festival KROK, and one of the short film prizes at the Portugal International Film Festival CINANIMA 2005, About Ivan the Fool is one of the most successful works of contemporary Russian animation. The film was co-directed by Mikhail Aldashin and Oleg Uzhinov. Uzhinov focused more on the storyboard, working with the animators, and, together with Aldashin, on the development of each episode. Aldashin functioned at once as director, art director, and scriptwriter; he chose the style, conceived most of the characters, and wrote the script.

Photo by the author

Oleg Uzhinov is a young director who started taking animation courses at the Pilot Studio in 1989. He worked with various directors mainly as animator and go-between until 1995, when he directed his first film Nevermore (Jamais). He subsequently worked in a company that produced computer games for children, before going back to the Pilot Studio as animator in 1999. Together with 53 other directors, in 1998 Uzhinov contributed to the Optimus Mundus project (creative producer Mikhail Aldashin, producers Dmitrii Gorbunov and Aleksandr Kuguchin), a feature-length animated documentary consisting of three-minute clips dedicated to Moscow.

Mikhail Aldashin is one of the most talented Russian contemporary animation directors. After graduating from VGIK as a live-action film art director, he started to work in animation with a seven-minute film based on an old folk tale of the Chukotka Eskimos, Kele (1988). He wrote scripts, produced several films, animated several of his own shorts, and directed some eight animated films, among which The Nativity (Rozhdestvo, 1996) and Bugs (Bukashki, 2002) have received international recognition at a number of film festivals.

During the early stages of work on About Ivan the Fool, Andrei Kuznetsov collaborated in the creation of the characters and the background. Kuznetsov is an animator and the art director of many of Pilot Studio’s films, as well as a director of How the Snake Was Cheated (Kak obmanuli zmeia, 2004), one of the films in the series The Mountains of Gems. A successful film with an original style and modern and expressive music, it won the prize as the best debut film at the “The Golden Fish” International Festival of Animation for Children (“Zolotaia rybka,” 2005).

About the Ivan the Fool is part of the vast project called The Mountain of Gems (Gora samotsvetov) conceived by Aleksandr Tatarskii, the animation director and president of Pilot Studio. This project—partially financed by the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography (formerly known as Goskino) and produced by Georgii Vasil'ev, [1] Igor' Gelashvili, and Irina Kaplichnaia [2] —includes fifty-two films based on traditional tales from different ethnic groups living in the Russian Federation. The title of the series comes from a book, dear to Tatarskii since his childhood, The Mountain of Gems: Tales from the Peoples of USSR (Gora samotsvetov: Skazki narodov SSSR), a collection of famous traditional folktales, as well as lesser-known stories.

The high artistic quality of the films is assured by the constant supervision of the studio’s Artistic Council (Khudsovet), a group of remarkable directors—including Aldashin, Eduard Nazarov, Aleksandr Tatarskii, Valentin Telegin, and the talented short story writer and scriptwriter Georgii Zakolodiazhnyi—who are supported by illustrious artistic consultants, such as Fedor Khitruk and Iurii Norshtein. The exceptional artistic level of the entire Mountain of Gems project has already been recognized with prizes at both the 2005 KROK and 2005 Suzdal' festivals.

The films in the series are completely self-standing, but they are all linked by the repetition of an introductory clip, which begins with the phrase “We live in Russia” and shows the national coat-of-arms and the Russian flag. While the words and images on screen are definitely patriotic, the accent is put on the vastness and variety of Russia; the entire project is meant to teach the new generation how to accept and appreciate the multicultural character of their country. The series proposes a new meaning for “patriotism,” a word that seems to have acquired an exclusively negative connotation as used by politicians. The original plan was to have each film in the series shot in the language of the nationality involved in the story—Armenian, Georgian, etc. Tatarskii observed in a number of interviews that making the films only in Russian would have been a disservice to other ethnic groups within the federation. The director, however, soon had to confront organizational and financing problems that forced him to produce the films exclusively in Russian.

While each film in the series is made using different techniques—drawings, cut-outs, plasticine, puppets, 2-D and 3-D animation—the introductory clips, shot by the gifted Pilot Studio director Sergei Merinov, are created exclusively with plasticine. Although each opening clip begins with the same words and images, each also develops independently; in 3 minutes it delineates the original setting of the story. These introductory clips are works of art in their own right, and won the prize at the Festival KROK in the category “Applied and commissioned animation (education film, music video, advertising film, TV trailer, an episode from a serial).”

Only seventeen out of fifty-two films in the series have so far been completed, but about ten more are in production at the moment. Many of the films were presented at the Suzdal' and KROK festivals in 2005, and some of them have also been nominated for or received prizes at International Film Festivals. At the same time, however, these high-quality animated films are not earmarked exclusively for screenings at national or international festivals; they are also being broadcast on television: some of the films were screened on the First Channel in November and others will be broadcast in the future. Moreover, the entire collection of films will be released commercially on DVD; two disks containing the first 10 films were issued last month.

About Ivan the Fool is based on a well-known Russian folktale—the story of Ivan, nicknamed “The Fool,” who, after a series of adventures, manages, mainly by chance, to marry the Tsar’s daughter. Stylistically, the film is based on the traditional lubok. The simplicity of the drawings, together with a balanced composition, makes the lubok style particularly suitable for adaptations of folktales. In typical lubok style, characters and background in the film are depicted in a stylized and conventional way, with bold colors, black contours and traits, and sometimes disproportion between characters and background. A narrator fulfills the function of the inscriptions found in the lubok; he gives voice to the characters and tells the story as an inside witness. His storytelling performance further enhances the popular character of the film.

The film uses the device of presenting various moments in the narrative at the same time, a device that is a feature of some luboks, as well as of Russian icons. In the lubok, the violation of the picture’s temporal unity is obtained through a depiction of events in the story in contiguous small frames (much as in the icon the stages of a saint’s life are represented in small framed pictures). The directors achieve a similar effect in the film during the scene in which Ivan tells the bear of his past adventures. Ivan’s narration is presented without words: he “re-enacts” the events on a space that recalls a word balloon, or, more exactly, a projected video screen. Ivan appears simultaneously as the main figure in his story and as the story’s narrator; that is, he becomes both the object and the agent of the narration. This juxtaposition of folk art tradition with modern cinematography creates an interesting and comic effect, but it is also an act of self-reflection on film as such, on its narrative function, and on its relationship to pictorial art.

About Ivan the Fool also makes use of many theatrical elements. At times the backgrounds in the film seem to be drawn on panels that recall the stage sets of a puppet theater. As in the theater, the panels are pulled up or moved sideways, to be replaced quickly by others in order to introduce a change between day and night or in location. The puppet theater is also evoked by the characters, which are represented as flat versions of puppets. These cut-outs, in fact, are like flat marionettes, whose movable joints allow only for jerky movements. Movement is reduced to a minimum and developed only in a few significant phases, further heightening the mechanical and puppet-like quality of the characters. While the cut-outs emphasize the theatrical aspect of the film, they also allow the directors to remain faithful to the conventions of the lubok style.

This is not the first time that the lubok has found a place in a Russian animated film. Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Vladimir Danilevich originally used this style in The Lefty (Levsha, 1964), a feature-length animated film. Subsequently, the lubok was adopted for adaptations of other folktales in animated films made by the Soiuzmul'tfil'm director Leonid Nosyrev—If You Don’t Like—Don’t Listen (Ne liubo—ne slushai, 1977), The Magic Ring (Volshebnoe kol'tso, 1979), and Mister Pron'ka (1991), to mention a few.

Whereas traditional animation techniques were used by Ivan’s predecessors, Aldashin and Uzhinov re-elaborated the images on the computer. The directors’ exceptionally skilled work, however, overcomes the coldness typical of 3-D animation. The spectator can still perceive “artistic imperfections,” which allows the artists’ handwork and craftsmanship to stand out, bringing this film still closer to its original source, the lubok. In style, technique, rhythm, and originality, Ivan the Fool is one of the best new Russian animated films.

Laura Pontieri-Hlavacek (Yale University)


1] Georgii Vasil'ev is a well-known “bard” poet who has been performing in a duet with Aleksei Ivashchenko since 1975.

2] Irina Kaplichnaia is also the director of the KROK Festival.

About Ivan the Fool, Russia, 2004
Color, cut-out animation and 3-D computer, 13 minutes
Directors: Mikhail Aldashin, Oleg Uzhinov
Scriptwriter: Mikhail Aldashin
Art Director: Mikhail Aldashin, Andrei Kuznetsov
Artists: Mariia Zaikina, Dzhuliia Balashova
Animators: Pavel Barkov, Evgenii Dudin, Leon Éstrin, Dmitrii Andreev, Aleksei Naumenkov
Render: Aleksei Naumenkov
Special effects: Evgenii Dudin
Director: Igor' Gelazhvili
Composers: Irina Brokert-Aristova, Iurii Prialkin
Sound: Vadim Kruglov
Voices: Aleksandr Len'kov, Ol'ga Shorokhova, Éduard Nazarov, Aleksand Rilippenko
Production: Pilot Studio

Mikhail Aldashin and Oleg Uzhinov: About Ivan the Fool (Pro Ivana Duraka), 2004

reviewed by Laura Pontieri Hlavacek© 2006

Updated: 16 Jan 06