Issue 37 (2012)

Vladimir Toropchin: Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf (Ivan Tsarevich i seryi volk, 2011)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2012

ivan sery volkPrince Ivan and the Grey Wolf is an animated feature film produced by Mel’nitsa, the studio that gave us the bylina (epic)-based bogatyri trilogy of Alesha Popovich and Tugarin the Serpent (Alesha Popovich i Tugarin Zmei,2004), Dobrynia Nikitich and the Serpent Gorynych (Dobrynia Nikitich i Zmei Gorynych, 2006), and Il’ia Muromets and the Robber-Nightingale (Il’ia Muromets i Solovei-razboinik, 2007). This trilogy was followed by The Three Bogatyrs and the Shamakhan Princess (Tri bogatyria i Shamakhanskaia tsaritsa 2010) a more folktale-like narrative where the three epic heroes, Alesha, Dobrynia, and Il’ia, have to save Rostov and, by implication, all of Russia from the evil princess who remains young by collecting the tears of young maidens and using them to water a magical tree that produces the fruit of youth (not the apples of youth of Russian fairy tales, but a clear reference to this folk motif). The film under review is even more tale-like and references the folktale with the same name. Although this film shares its title with folklore, here, as with the bogatyri narratives, the connection to the folk original is in name only. The folk tale “Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf”is usually known as “The Firebird,” where the eponymous hero sets out to find first the firebird, then a magical horse, then Vasilisa the Fair, all with the help of a talking Grey Wolf companion. In the Mel’nitsa-produced film, we do have a hero named Ivan and his companion and helper is a talking Grey Wolf. The girl whom Ivan seeks to wed is indeed named Vasilisa. One of the posters for the film is based on the painting by Vasnetsov Prince Ivan on the Grey Wolf. But that is where the resemblances to classic folk and fairytales end.

ivan sery volkThe film has a main plot, a frame plot, one secondary plot, and numerous subsidiary mini-plots. In the main plot, Ivan, a prince who wants to be a fireman, is expelled from his kingdom by his father. He goes to the three times ninth kingdom, the typical designation for the magic locus of folktale action. Here he is accidentally chosen as the groom for the princess of the realm, Vasilisa. He is imprisoned and held against his will to be forced into marriage the next day. Neither Ivan nor Vasilisa want to marry, and Vasilisa weeps bitterly, lamenting her fate. It so happens that Ivan’s cell is on the other side of the wall from Vasilisa’s chamber. Ivan hears the princess’s laments, offers his sympathy, and eventually figures out that he is the man who has been chosen as the tearful princess’s groom. Not seeing each other, the two take an oath not to wed until they find their true love and certainly not to wed each other. The wedding preparations go forth regardless and, when Ivan and Vasilisa are forced into the hall where the wedding will be held, they gaze upon one another for the first time and immediately fall in love. They are now quite happy to wed. In the meantime, however, the king, moved by his daughter’s lamentations and protests, has figured out a way to undo his order that she marry the first-met man, who Ivan happens to be. The way that he will undo what he has commanded is by pretending that the customs of the country demand that the groom undertake a quest. The quest is to go I-know-not-where and bring back I-know-not-what. This is again a well-known folk motif and one that has been used in Russian animation in the film About Fedot the Shooter (Pro Fedota Strel’tsa, Udalogo Molodtsa 2008). The king’s supposition is that this is an impossible quest from which Ivan will not return, thus freeing Vasilisa from her obligation to marry. Of course Vasilisa weeps bitterly at the thought of losing Ivan, just as she had at the thought of marrying Ivan just the day before.

ivan sery volkIvan sets out on his quest. With the help of a learned cat (kot uchonyi, a reference to a literary fairytale, specifically Pushkin’s fairy tales), he learns that the entry to the I-know-not-where place is through a magical well. From the cat Ivan also receives a magic mirror with which he can communicate back to the thrice ninth kingdom. Ivan dives into the well, followed rather reluctantly by the Grey Wolf. When Ivan pops out of the other end of the well, he finds himself in a magical kingdom where it is winter, the opposite of the kingdom he left behind. A coat and hat pop out after him and when he tosses the hat at a tree, a magical invisible creature runs past. The Wolf soon pops out into this world also. Besides a beautiful snow-covered landscape, the two see a signpost with arrows pointing in three directions: one to Baba Yaga, the classical witch of tales; one points to Koshchei the Immortal (Koshchei Bessmertnyi); the third to Zmei Gorynych, the dragon we already know not just from folklore, but also from the bogatyri trilogy.[1] An owl flies by trying to catch a squirrel that teases and torments the owl. The squirrel spots the new visitors to the magical winter kingdom and starts a conversation. Ivan and the Wolf try to ask directions but the squirrel says that she does favours only after receiving a favour herself. With the squirrel distracted by the conversation, the owl senses his opportunity and starts to swoop – only to be beaten off by Ivan’s expertly thrown snowball. The squirrel acknowledges that she has received the requisite favour and tells the pair to ask what they will. Before Ivan has a chance to speak, the Wolf asks about a magic lake. There is indeed one in this kingdom, the squirrel says, but it is available only to those who are on their return journey. Ivan starts to ask about the I-know-not-what, but the squirrel cuts him off, saying that they have used their one question. Still, she suggests that they go to Baba Yaga and ask her for the self-guiding ball of yarn. The heroes head in the direction to Baba Yaga’s house as indicated on the signpost. Soon enough, they encounter her fearsome hut on chicken legs, spewing out the armour of soldiers presumably devoured by some combination of Baba Yaga and the hut. Baba Yaga appears flying on her mortar and pushing herself off with her pestle. She lands and addresses Ivan and the Wolf. The Wolf cleverly flatters Baba Yaga, telling her how beautiful she is, how young-looking. He then says that she can be better looking still with the help of a set of cosmetics that he happens to have with him. Talking like a game show host, he manages to convince Baba Yaga to trade the self-guiding ball of yarn for the cosmetics.

The pair asks the ball to take them to I-know-not-what. The ball tries, but its guidance system just does not pick up such an object. Ivan and the Wolf then decide to go to Koshchei and the ball turns into a magic sleigh with a smiley face that takes them there. Koshchei too, it turns out, is a threat to all living things and his castle is decorated with skeletons. He kills people, we soon learn, by talking them to death. Soon enough Ivan and the Grey Wolf are in Koshchei’s castle, strapped into chairs and forced to listen to their captor telling fairytale after fairytale. This time the Wolf and Ivan together trick their opponent: they start questioning the content of Koshchei’s tales; they tell their own versions; they say words backwards. In other words, they do to Koshchei what he normally does to his captives. Koshchei cannot take this and tells them that what they seek is in the possession of Zmei Gorynych. Ivan and the Wolf ask the ball to take them there. The ball begs off: not only does he fear Gorynych, but he has family, baby balls of yarn, close by. Ivan and the Wolf proceed alone.

ivan sery volkGorynych looks somewhat different from the dragon of the bogatyri trilogy, but he is fearsome nonetheless. He is huge; he has three heads; and he spits masterfully aimed balls of fire. He captures Ivan and the Wolf and proclaims his intention to devour them. Ivan begs Gorynych to let them go. He tells Gorynych that he is not evil; rather, he is kind and he should practice acts of kindness so that people will thank him and he will see how good being thanked feels. A long philosophical discussion between the two ensues. Gorynych explains that there must be evil in the world to balance the good and that he, Baba Yaga, and Koshchei are the incarnation of that evil. Whether or not this is a reference to Jim Henson’s Dark Crystal (Universal Pictures, 1982) is not clear. Ivan keeps insisting on the pleasure of doing good and Koshchei does let him and the Wolf go – only to recapture them so that he can let them go again and re-experience the pleasure of being thanked. Gorynych keeps toying with the pair until Ivan convinces him to give them a present which turns out to be precisely the object of their quest, the I-know-not-what. In exchange, they give Gorynych the magic mirror through which they had communicated with the learned cat.

Leaving Gorynych’s lair they excitedly open their prize, only to discover a piece of paper which tells them that they can have one wish and one wish only. As they head back, one of the subplots kicks in. The Wolf is convinced that he is really an enchanted prince – hence his intelligence and ability to talk. He is certain that, when he bathes in the lake of the magic kingdom, he will resume his true form. He eagerly dives in – and, to his horror and disbelief, emerges as a ground squirrel. Just then the owl, which had been chasing the squirrel at the beginning of the snow kingdom sequence, appears and carries off the unfortunate ground squirrel/wolf. Ivan, without hesitation, uses the wish in the box to return his companion to wolf form.  The Wolf tumbles towards the waters of the lake, but is caught by Ivan in the nick of time. This essentially puts the pair back where they started: the Wolf is again a wolf and the magic of the I-know-not-what has been used, rendering the object no longer magical. Just then the cat appears to tell the pair that they must return to the human realm immediately for the thrice ninth kingdom is in crisis.

The subplot of the Wolf and the lake needs a few words of explanation. In some versions of The Firebird, the wolf who helps Ivan acquire the bird, the horse, and the girl, is indeed an enchanted prince. Once Ivan is safely back in his own kingdom with his prizes, the wolf asks his Ivan to chop off his head. Ivan refuses, saying that he cannot do such a thing to his faithful companion and helper. The wolf insists and, when Ivan finally gives in and does as he is told, a handsome prince emerges from the decapitated body of the wolf. The prince was, indeed, enchanted for his misdeeds and forced to help others. But now that his service is complete and he has suffered decapitation, he can return to human form. The wolf-as-prince, or as supposed prince, subplot is a reference to this motif known by at least some viewers from folklore and fairytale.

ivan sery volkReturning to the main narrative, we must summarize the other main plot to understand why the thrice ninth kingdom is in crisis. As we are told by the Wolf-narrator at the beginning of the film, all is not well in this seemingly peaceful land. The king’s chief minister is plotting to steal the special key which the king keeps in his possession always, even chaining it to his wrist at night. The minister, for reasons that are never made clear, is in the thrall of a dark shadow being whom he addresses and Your Darkness (Vashe Temnichestvo). It is the Shadow who needs this key and he prods the minister into various schemes to obtain it. The main scheme is to get the tsar to marry his daughter to the chief minister, allowing the latter control of the realm and thus access to the key. It is the minister’s pressure which prods the tsar into insisting that his daughter get married, first tempting her with photos of eligible bachelors and then getting angry and commanding that she will marry the first-met man. There are a number of mostly comic scenes where the minister, coached by the Shadow, tries to manoeuvre the tsar into betrothing Vasilisa to the minister. There is also a scene where the minister makes various strange noises at night to frighten the tsar and convince him that he needs an heir.

When the Shadow and the minister finally give up on their marriage scheme, they decide to steal the key. This is precisely what they do while Ivan and the Grey Wolf are in the I-know-not-where kingdom looking for I-know-not-what. The key unlocks a secret room in the castle which contains a large hat that looks like a sombrero. It is the hat of invisibility which the tsar had used to check on his subjects unobserved. While the hat makes a being of the flesh, like a person, invisible, it turns the Shadow into a being of the flesh. Once “embodied,” the Shadow begins to drain or suck out the vital essence from humans, turning them into shadows. He starts with the chief minister and acquires not only his essence, but also his appearance. It is to a scene where the Shadow, looking like a giant version of the chief minister, is feasting on the humans of the realm that Ivan and the Grey Wolf return.

ivan sery volkIvan wants to attack the Shadow/minister, but before he has a chance to do so the cat uses his mirror to make a call into the magic winter kingdom and summon Zmei Gorynych. The dragon does arrive and manages to set the Hat-of-Invisibility ablaze with a well-aimed fireball. The Shadow/minister throws the burning hat off his head and, of course, shrinks, and returns to shadow form. As he does so, all of the people whom he had sucked and drained of their vital essence become human again. We have not quite arrived at a happy ending, however. When the Shadow threw off the Hat-of-Invisibility, it landed near the castle and set fire to the building where Vasilisa’s chamber is located. The building burns; Vasilisa screams, and Ivan’s fireman dreams are about to be realized. He propels himself up to her chamber, just as he imaged he would –and gets stuck in the wall. Zmei Gorynych comes to the rescue again. The firemen pump him full of water and he takes off, dumping water instead of shooting fireballs. The fire is doused. Ivan and Vasilisa are saved and everyone can now live happily ever after. The film concludes with a bouncy song-and-dance number.

Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf uses a folktale-like quest plot, even though the narrative has little resemblance to the tale on which it is ostensibly based. The presence of a classic plot does give the film appeal and, according to Kinopoisk, it has been seen by nearly 4 million people and grossed almost 25 million dollars. Ratings of the film are mixed. Using the data from Kinopoisk again, Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf gets 6.44 out of 10 stars. Much of the discussion concerns the “Russianness” of the film and questions its humour. Commentators want their cartoons to be Russian and this film does indeed satisfy that desire to an extent. Russian elements include the clothing worn by all of the male characters and the fact that the action takes place in the thrice ninth kingdom, the magic locus of Russian tales, rather than in a kingdom far, far, away, the place where Western tale action occurs. Ivan, the tsar, Gorynych, Baba Yaga, and Koshchei the Immortal are specifically Russian manifestations of the folklore characters of the hero, the king, the dragon, the witch, and the warlock. The mermaid sitting in a tree is also a specifically Russian character, although the one in this film has a fish tail and is rather plump, unlike the famous tree-sitting rusalka in Bilibin’s drawing. The learned cat is based on a Pushkin character and walks around an oak tree on a golden chair, but he works as a tour guide who sells souvenirs on the side. He reminds us of the modern manifestation of the tours that started in the Soviet period.

ivan sery volkThere are a number of Soviet references in addition to the Intourist-like cat and these might be perceived as Russian. Ivan’s father, we are told, is particularly fond of parades and we see marching formations which bear a striking resemblance to the documentary footage of parades in Red Square. The Soviet references, however, are frequently laced with irony. Ivan’s desire to be a fireman recalls Soviet agitprop films in which a member of the upper classes discovers the joys of proletarian hard work. But his motives are non-Soviet and he wants to be a fireman, not because he sympathizes with the working classes or because he has discovered the joys of physical labour, but because he thinks that a fireman’s uniform makes him particularly handsome and improves his chances of attracting women. Vasilisa is supposed to be an emancipated woman, highly educated and trained in the sciences, much like Soviet heroines. But her education is Western, not Russian, her degrees coming from Oxford and the Sorbonne. Furthermore, her devotion to physics and chemistry is a sham for the science books that she ostensibly reads conceal the romance novels that are her true interest

Slapstick humour permeates Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf. To give just one example in detail, when Ivan leaves his own land to “go abroad” to the thrice ninth kingdom, he loosens a plank in the fence separating the two realms and journeys through. As the plank that he had moved falls back into place, it strikes a piglet on the snout and hurts the little creature. The piglet runs crying to his mother’s side. The rather hefty sow then butts the loose plank and catapults Ivan through the air and into the tree with the learned cat and the mermaid. There are many similar incidents and Ivan gets catapulted repeatedly. The Grey Wolf, like the piglet, is bopped in the nose several times. Simplistic double-entendres abound. A number of viewers object to this juvenile humour. Their objections are often related to their desire for Russian content; these viewers are nationally conscious and want their Russian material to be treated with respect. How the producers at Mel’nitsa will resolve the conflict between the desire for material with deferentially presented Russian content and the demand for light-hearted, humorous family fare will become evident as more animated films are produced.


1] Zmei Gorynych also appeared in a Soviet cartoon entitled The Last Bride of Zmei Gorynych (Posledniaia nevesta Zmeia Gorynycha, Soiuzmul’tfil’m 1978). The second of the bogatyri films, Dobrynia Nikitych i Zmei Gorynych breaks a striking resemblance to the Soiuzmul’tfi’lm cartoon.

Natalie Kononenko
University of Alberta, Canada

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Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf
Russia 2011
Director: Vladiir Toropchin
Script: Aleksandr Boiarskii
Composer: Valentin Vasenkov
Voices: Nikita Efremov, Ivan Okhlobystin, Artur Smolianinov, Liia Akhedzhakova, Kristina Asmus
Producers: Sergei Selianov, Aleksandr Boiarskii
Production: CTB and Mel’nitsa

Vladimir Toropchin: Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf (Ivan Tsarevich i seryi volk, 2011)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2012

Updated: 06 Jul 12