Issue 38 (2012)

Denis Chernov: Smeshariki—The Beginning (Smeshariki—Nachalo, 2011)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris © 2012

smesharikiAt first there is something slightly incongruous about the big screen treatment for this warm, intelligent and carefully crafted cartoon series; the transition to a film-length plot, upgrade from relatively simply executed digital animation to full-blown CGI-crafted movement and backgrounds is a significant step away from the visual concept that made the six-minute episodes of the original series so popular. The film also departs from the creative philosophy of the original which has no “baddies” and never puts its characters in perilous situations. However, the viewer soon gets used to the new look of the well-loved funny balloon-shaped characters of Smeshariki (“smesharik” is a contraction of the words “smeshnoi sharik,” a funny balloon). The film is a well thought-through prequel, its plot explaining events that brought the nine animal characters together in the first place.

smesharikiHyperactive, adventurous Krosh (a rabbit) and shy thoughtful Ezhik (a hedgehog) are the best of friends. They find a prehistoric, miraculously working television in an underground cave, a technological affordance they have never seen before on their isolated island of cartoon-animal tranquility: a kind of mythical Russian country village. All the inhabitants of the island (the eponymous Smeshariki) quickly get hooked on a television series about the heroic exploits of superhero Lucien, who is “played” by Kopatych, a bear character from the original series. Satirizing contemporary television, Lucien’s action series is full of product placement and cross-media marketing. The naïve Smesharikitake the tele-visual fiction for fact and set out on an ocean voyage to aid Lucien in his one-man crime-fighting role. Arriving in a dystopian metropolis with the appearance of a north-American city and rude inhabitants of a ruthless, capitalist mindset, the Smeshariki are at first easy prey. Ezhik makes friends with a local, Pin the Penguin, an engineer and genius inventor, but they are quickly framed for a robbery and end up in a maximum security jail. Ezhik’s friends are in despair, now believing that only contact with Lucien will help their cause. Finding him at the main TV studio they are soon given a lesson in the difference between fact and screen fiction. Lucien’s producer has tried to blackmail him to perform a relentless schedule of promotional material. Lucien refuses, citing his wish to retire and cultivate his country cottage garden (his role in the original series). However, the evil producer has all Lucien’s property foreclosed due to his debts. These plot elements cock more than a passing snook at the Channel One broadcasting machine at Ostankino in Moscow. Eventually the Smeshariki convince Lucien that in aiding their cause he can become a real superhero and together they bust their friends out of jail, escaping by dirigible back to their island.

smesharikiWhile the relocation of setting and rescue story are a far cry from the cosily domestic, whimsical and unashamedly cerebral original, the big screen outing for the Smeshariki characters retains many of the themes and recurring concerns of the first six TV series of more than 200 episodes. The original was developed in 2004 by the “Petersburg” animation studio for STS channel with financial support from the Russian Ministry of Culture as part of its “World without Violence” campaign. Conceptualized as a socially educative “Russian product,” it successful fulfilled this role without coming across to audiences as didactic or sentimentally inward-looking.

One of the features that made these series so popular with children and adults alike were the well-developed and differentiated personalities of the characters which gave plenty of opportunities for the exploration of serious and challenging themes. These were high quality scripts on a wide variety of topics; for example, the dangers of addiction and technology, the importance of inner beauty and the threats to personhood posed by glamour culture, the social awkwardness of creative and thinking personalities, but above all the importance of fantasy in childhood that is not predicated on the consumerist trappings of modernity. Thus the characters’ pastimes include writing lyric poetry, collecting sweet-wrappers and cactuses, making jam, drying mushrooms, studying the stars and falling autumn leaves, and most importantly just spending time together.

smesharikiAll the stories strongly support the values of kindness, politeness, “culturedness” and learning, and they foreground the guidance that friendship and community provide to the individual making his or her way in the world. The interactions between the “adult” and “child” characters (though the distinction is somewhat imprecise) allow the creators to explore more complex themes and litter their creation liberally with specific cultural references, both native and foreign. Thus, Kar Karych, a retired crow artiste-impresario, is a lover of cabaret, a larger-than-life personality of boundless energy, wit and erudition, in the best Bulgakovian tradition. When all the characters become addicted to an instant messaging telegraph machine invented by Pin, he alone takes on the responsibility of creeping into their homes at night, masked and in a cape, to destroy the machines and restore the lost art of conversation and socializing. In another episode, Pin the engineer takes his friends into orbit in a rocket only to fall foul of his too-logical on-board computer which in a direct parody of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (dir. Kubrick, 1968), seeks to eliminate the crew. The often highbrow treatment of topics such as the meaning of poetic inspiration, and the melancholy that comes with a change of season, does not prevent an execution that is frenetic in pace. The episodes zip along accompanied by a rip-roaring original soundtrack, the songs of which are as impressive creatively as the stories themselves. These features, together with the rapid-fire parody, mean that Smeshariki owe as much to Western cartoons like The Simpsons as the kindly Soviet cartoon heritage that underpins this series’ gestalt. This is may be a Russian “mentality” product, but it is one for an MTV generation.

Jeremy Morris
University of Birmingham

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Smeshariki, Russia, 2011
86 minutes, color.
Director: Denis Chernov
Script: Aleksei Lebedev
Design: Salavat Shaikhinurov, Ol’ga Ovinnikova
Music: Marina Landa, Sergei Vasil’ev
Cast: Vadim Bochanov, Sergei Mardar, Anton Vinogradov, Svetlana Pis’michenko, Vladimir Postnikov, Mikhail Cherniak
Producers: Il’ia Popov: Anatolii Prokhorov, Timur Bekmambetov
Production: Animation Studio “Petersburg”/Bazelevs Production/
Distribution: Riki

Denis Chernov: Smeshariki—The Beginning (Smeshariki—Nachalo, 2011)

reviewed by Jeremy Morris © 2012

Updated: 11 Oct 12