Issue 32 (2011)

Garri Bardin: The Ugly Duckling (Gadkii utenok, 2010)

reviewed by Laura Pontieri Hlavacek © 2011

utenokClever and amusing, The Ugly Duckling, is another masterpiece by Garri Bardin, who, being director, script writer and producer of most of his films, always leaves an unmistakable signature in his works. In the past thirty years his films have conquered children, adult audiences, festival crowds and juries. The scripts of Bardin’s films are always original and witty, while his expressive and pliable plasticine characters freely move on the rhythm of wise and exact bits of music.[1] Indeed, music is a fundamental element in all of Bardin’s films, whether it is the meaningful soundtrack of wordless films, such as his first films Brave Inspector Mamochkin (Bravyi inspektor Mamochkin, 1977), Road Tale (Dorozhnaia skazka, 1981), Tiap-Liap Painters (Tiap-Liap Maliari, 1984), Break (Brek, 1985), to the later Adagio (Adadzhio, 2000), or whether it accompanies librettos in musical films such as Flying Ship (Letuiushchi korabl’, 1979), We Used to Be Birds Before (Prezhde my byli ptitsami, 1982), and especially in Grey Wolf and Little Red Riding Hood (Seryi volk end krasnaia shapochka, 1990), in which music defines the characters and enhances the stereotypical traits of the different cultures and nationalities represented, namely Russian, American and French.

In The Ugly Duckling, Bardin opts for the musical genre; there are no dialogues, only verses written by the famous poet and song-writer Iulii Kim on music adapted from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, arranged by Sergei Anashkin and directed by Vladimir Spivakov with the National Philarmonic Orchestra of Russia. The entire film is built upon an exact combination of music and movements of the plasticine figures, reaching at times the perfection of a classical ballet, for example in the scene where the chicks hatch the eggs. The song shouted at the raising of the bird-community’s flag is increasingly comic every time it is repeated, while the ugly duckling’s dejected solo contrasts vividly with the birds’ enthusiastic collective songs that resemble typical Soviet tunes. The frequent reoccurrence of the duckling’s solo can become annoying but, on the other hand, this very reiteration strips the song of the inherent, sad feeling and stresses the uncanny comic effect of the situation, in a way similar to the one experienced in Charlie Chaplin’s films.

utenokIt is not the first time that Bardin ventures in to staging a classic tale; but in his Little Red Riding Hood (1990) and Puss in Boots (1995), he freely interpreted these two classics by setting the characters into a contemporary world and adding sharp political and cultural references. In The Ugly Duckling, Bardin does not depart from the original story as radically as in the above-mentioned films; nonetheless he puts a peculiar spin on it. It is probably superfluous to recall the famous Andersen’s tale of The Ugly Duckling, a story of discrimination and non-acceptance of diversity, themes that Bardin already tackled in his film Adagio. The director makes his hero born in a fenced self-sufficient hen-house. The poor duckling is not accepted in this community because of his different look and, after being pushed from one side to the other, he is finally expelled by the group. The self-proclaimed free hen house is in reality an enclosed space, completely isolated from the rest of the world. Political references? Surely, but not only. The parody of a closed society that lives secluded in a little fenced world with a freedom-revolutionary-flag raised every morning, with pompous parades and a religious devotion to a useless leader, is vividly felt by an audience accustomed to Soviet times. Certainly the witty verses written by Iulii Kim for the songs greatly underline the parody inherent in this film. Bardin satirically criticizes weaknesses of our contemporary world as much as events from the Soviet past. Yet, in all his films he also explores the human soul and the complexities of the interrelations with others. A universal quest for tolerance at any time and any place remains still the central message of the film.

utenokCamera work subtly criticizes the emptiness of the values that are at the base of the bird community. The fenced hen-house on the top of a hill feels like the vast world for the inhabitants, but is depicted small and insignificant from the outside, in particular once it is framed from a low camera angle from the bottom of the hill or from the bird’s eye view, which enhances the contrast of this little space with the boundless landscape that surrounds it. The camera also shows the hen-house from within, at times revealing different corners, while spinning around it with a quick shift that seems to pay tribute to postmodernist cinematography. Camera angles and framing devices also emphasize certain traits of the characters. The rooster, the adoptive father of the ugly duckling, for example, is depicted as farcical as boastful. The camera underlines his ridiculousness by filming him from below, making him appear haughty and powerful, only to shift the angle to reveal a comic setting, as for example when he is sitting on the ugly duckling’s oversized egg.

From the very beginning of the film the camera also attentively follows a little worm that belongs to the hen-house world despite the risk he runs in it every day. The worm observes what happens to the ugly duckling, and sympathizes with him; it, too, is an outsider, but not an outcast. The worm’s position between the ugly duckling and the rest of the henhouse inhabitants allows it to witness the events from both sides: as a silent observer and commentator, and as central thread that runs through the narrative structure of the film.

utenokWith regard to stylistic choices, Bardin opts for stop-motion animation of plasticine puppets (or, at times, feather dolls and marionettes). Only the ugly duckling is depicted employing two different techniques: his everyday self materializes in a plasticine figure, but his soul appears in the form of an animated drawing. The drawn ugly duckling forsakes his plasticine body every time he dreams of a better world or experiences an inner struggle between how he is perceived through the others’ eyes and his real, capable self. The drawn traits of his soul will rejoin the plasticine body only at the end of the film, when the ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan and understands who he really is within a community that accepts him.

The film is full of original insights and presents a classical tale in a way only Bardin could tell it. The multi-faceted interpretation of the story allows Bardin to address children and adults at the same time. Bardin brings the drama, vividly felt by children, of not being accepted or loved for what they are, to a more universal dimension. Intolerance is a recurrent theme in Bardin’s films, and Andersen’s tale is certainly a good choice to exemplify it. The Ugly Duckling thus pleads for the acceptance of people who are different in race, color or language.

Laura Pontieri Hlavacek

Comment on this article on Facebook


1] Most of Bardin’s films are made with plasticine puppets, however Bardin made a few drawn films (Reaching the Sky / Dostat’ do neba, 1975; Merry-go-round No.8, The Tin / Veselaia karusel’ No. 8, Konservnaia banka, 1976; Brave Inspector Mamochkin 1977; Khoma’s adventures / Prikliucheniia Khomy, 1978; Flying Ship, 1979; Pif-paf, Oi-oi-oi, 1980; Road Tale, 1981; We Used to Be Birds Before, 1982) and also ventured in various techniques such as animated matches (Conflict / Konflikt, 1983), pixillation (The Banquet / Banket, 1986), animated wires (Embellishments / Vykrutasy, 1987), and animated cords (The Wedding / Brak, 1987).

The Ugly Duckling, Russia, 2010
Director and Scriptwriter: Garri Bardin
Production Design: Kirill Chelushkin, Arkadii Melik-Sarkisian
Composer: Petr Tchaikovsky, Sergei Anashkin
Verses: Iulii Kim
Artists: Irina Sobinova-Kassil’, Vladimir Maslov, Marina Lagunova, Ol’ga Usacheva
Cameraman: Ivan Remizov
Assistant cameraman: Il’ia Trafimtsev
Animators: Irina Sobinova-Kassil’, Ol’ga Veselova, Tat’iana Molodova, Vladimir Khomutov, Mariia Parfenova
Puppets made by: Viktor Grishin, Mikhail Koltunov, Natal’ia Klen, Nadezhda Gensitskaia, Elena Remizova, Ekaterina Lazutkina, Kseniia Shanina, Marina Lagunova, Vladimir Khomutov, Ol’ga Degtiareva.
Director: Natal’ia Donatova
Voices: Vladimir Kachan (wild goose), Iuliia Rutberg (hen-mother), Svetlana Stepchenko (Ugly Duckling), Khor Turetskovo (hen house inhabitants), Vladimir Spivakov (rooster), Konstantin Raikin (worm), Armen Dzhigarkhanian (turkey)

Garri Bardin: The Ugly Duckling (Gadkii utenok, 2010)

reviewed by Laura Pontieri Hlavacek © 2011

Updated: 11 Apr 11