Issue 41 (2013)

Maksim Sveshnikov and Vladlen Barbe: The Snow Queen (Snezhnaia koroleva, 2012)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2013

snowqueenThe Snow Queen opened on 31 December 2012, hoping to attract the New Year’s audiences, but struggled in the first week of its release, when it flopped at the Russian box office, making only slightly over $5 million. But by the end of January 2013 the film had made a remarkable recovery, drawing more than 1.3 million viewers worldwide. One of the factors in the film’s slow launch was the gap between viewers’ expectations of The Snow Queen and what the film actually delivers. The film is loosely based on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Snow Queen. In the original 1845 story there is an evil troll (the devil) who makes a mirror that has the power to show only the negative side in people. The mirror breaks, and pieces no bigger than sand fall to earth, freezing peoples’ hearts. One day Kai, while playing with his friend Gerda, gets one of these splinters in his eye and he begins to push his friend away. The Snow Queen lures the heartless Kai away from his home and his friend to her icy palace. The core of the tale is Gerda’s quest to find her friend and the ultimate power of love and friendship to bring her friend back. However, it is not only Andersen’s tale by which Russian audiences measure this film, but also Lev Atamanov’s The Snow Queen, which was produced by Soyuzmultfilm in 1957. While the plot of Andersen’s tale is simplified in the 1957 film version, Atamanov’s animation keeps the original spirit of the tale alive, captivating both adults and children. In this way the new film, produced by Wizart Animation, Bazelevs, and Inlay Film with support from the State Film Fund, had much to live up to. According to the creators of The Snow Queen, they did not change the original idea of Andersen’s tale, but some viewers felt differently. 

snowqueenOne addition to the plot is the role of parents. While the mirror that reflects people’s true souls exists in the new film, this mirror was created by the master glassmaker Vegard, the father of both Kai and Gerda. The polar winds, commanded by the Snow Queen, take away Vegard and his wife Una leaving their children Kai and Gerda alone. Yet the Snow Queen continues to worry about Vegard’s successor—his orphaned son, Kai. A servant of the Snow Queen, Orm, abducts Kai and sends him to the Snow Queen’s palace. Gerda immediately sets out to find Kai by forcing Orm to show her the way. The Snow Queen soon realizes that she needs both children and commands Orm to lead Gerda to her. As in Andersen’s story, on her quest Gerda meets up with the Flower Lady in a magical garden, a prince and princess, pirates (robbers in Andersen’s tale), and a Lapp woman, but fresh character development and adventurous plot twists create a modern tale. For example, the Flower Lady is caught up while making money and ‘business’ and wishes to keep Gerda in her garden to increase her profits. The prince, princess and the king, and the family of pirates all benefit from Gerda’s intrusion. As Gerda parts with each group, they decide that material possessions are not as important as the love of family and freedom. This is the opposite reaction from that of the solitary Flower Lady. The same positive family values are reinforced by the Lapp woman. The new film builds on many of the themes present in the original tale, but adds a modern interpretation to reach today’s audience.

snowqueenThe Snow Queen also sees the addition of Disney-like sidekicks. Luta is a white, sleek ferret that lives with Gerda at the orphanage and accompanies her to find Kai. Luta is instrumental in helping to save Gerda, for example when the crafty Flower Lady tries to poison Gerda. However, Luta causes mischief as well, when she runs away from Gerda in the orphanage, imagining herself as a video-game hero, which gets her into trouble. But the most memorable sidekick of The Snow Queen is Orm, is a shape-shifting troll whom the Snow Queen orders to find the child of the Master Vegard. Andersen’s original tale, in fact, begins with a troll who creates the mirror that shatters, yet Orm plays a more pivotal role. Initially the Snow Queen’s minion, Orm undergoes a change of heart while traveling with Gerda. Orm also serves as one of the main comedic sources in the film, often relying on slapstick humor from getting his tongue stuck to the ice to ill timed passing of gas. The addition of sidekicks and the development of their individual personalities is another step away from Atamanov’s 1957 film and Andersen’s tale.

snowqueenThe creation and development of these sidekicks also transforms the original strength of Gerda’s role. Andersen’s tale sets up Gerda as a strong female who overcomes obstacles will little help from the people around her. In the tale her strength is based on her sacrifices, her innocent and pure heart, her kindness and her determination. She is rewarded for her strength of personality. Atamanov’s film stays true to Andersen’s tale in relation to Gerda’s role, but Atamanov also made certain stylistic changes; for example, the Prince is a roly-poly boy who appears unable to truly rule anything. However, these changes do not alter Gerda’s strength or the power of an innocent child’s heart. The new film also supports the original tale’s message about the strength of a child, albeit in a different way. In The Snow Queen Gerda is certainly able to stand up for herself, yet her personality is different. Her power is based on physical force, on her wit, and on her determination. Her heart is not as innocent and she appears older and more street wise on her quest, for example when she forces Orm to lead her to the Snow Queen by shoving him and issuing threats. One inexplicable change in the film is that Kai and Gerda appear to be of the same age at the end of the film, despite the fact that the opening scene shows an infant Kai with Gerda as a young girl. Regardless of this strange age progression, Gerda and Kai are older and act more like teenagers, but the inclusion of the little girl Irma and how she became the Snow Queen demonstrates the power of children to be both good and evil, resonating with Andersen's original.

snowqueenThe addition of sidekicks and the character changes in Gerda and Kai are in tune with the expectations of a blockbuster-animated film today. Directed by Maksim Sveshnikov and Vladlen Barbe, The Snow Queen is a product of Wizart Animation based in Voronezh, a 3-D animation studio that grew out of a computer game and IT company. In an interview with the Association of Animated Film Iurii Moskvin, one of the film’s producers, suggests that Wizart Animation cannot beat out Disney, but that the studio is trying to compete (Interv’iu). Over 100 artists, from Moscow, St. Petersburg, Omsk and other Russian cities worked on this project for over three years. This film is not a pseudo 3D film mastered in post-production, but a real stereoscopic picture, which was produced on a budget of $7 million. A special effect occurs every 12 seconds, with over 1,000 in the 112-minute film. While at times the fluidity of the action is jerky, the studio still managed to released their film a full year before Disney’s counterpart project Frozen, which is set to premier on 27 November 2013.

snowqueenThere have been rumors of Disney working on a version of Andersen’s tale since 2000, and Frozen is now in production. This adaptation differs even more from the original tale and Gerda’s spirit than the Russian picture. True to many Disney adaptations, the female role appears greatly diminished. The current trailers of the Disney film tell a story of Anna, who is cursed by her estranged sister, the Snow Queen Elsa. Anna’s only hope is a race against time to the Snow Queen’s palace in the hope of melting her sister’s heart. In Disney fashion, Anna is accompanied by a strong, adventurous and brave male, Kristoff, ready to save Anna when required. The addition of a male lead and the fact that Anna is saving her sister, not her brother, is exactly what we should expect from a Disney adaptation of girl-centered story. However, final judgment of Frozen must be reserved for its release.

According to Vladimir Nikolaev, the head of Wizart Animation, Bazelevs and Timur Bekhmambetov joined Wizart in the creation of this film, making it a true family film with a strong message and special magic that had been missing (Kurdiukova). But the inclusion of Timur Bekhmambetov, a successful Hollywood producer, is just one of the steps that the film took in order to compete on a worldwide scale. The Snow Queen was presented to international buyers and has been released successfully in Brazil, South Korea, Israel, Turkey, the Middle East and elsewhere. It also showed at the Cannes Market in May 2013 and has been sold to other territories. The film targets an international audience with the inclusion of English signage in the film, for example “St. Peter’s Kids Shelter” outside the orphanage or  “Shop Van Berry’s” outside the store.  Original songs were written and composed by Mark Willott, an Emmy award-winning artist from the United Kingdom. “We will Never be Apart” is sung in English in the closing credits of the film by Butterfly Stone with vocals by Phil Gwynne. Finally, a recent announcement talks of the film’s release in the US by Vertical Entertainment, according to the film’s Facebook page. So whether or not The Snow Queen will actually compete with Frozen in the United States is still unclear, but the film has made an attempt to do so on the international market.

Lora Mjolsness
UC Irvine

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Works Cited

“Interv’iu sozdatelei 3D-mul’tfil’ma ‘Snezhnaya Koroleva’,” Assotsiatsiia animatsionnogo kino (12 November 2012)

Olesya Kurdiukova, “Sozdatel’ “Snezhnoi korolevy”: Budem delat’ Voronezha stolitsu animatsii,” Argumenty i fakty (12 December 2012)

The Snow Queen, Russia, 2012
Animation, Color, 3D, 72 minutes
Directors: Maksim Sveshnikov and Vladlen Barbe
Script: Maksim Sveshnikov and Vladlen Barbe
Voices: Ivan Okhlobystin, Nyusha, Anna Ardova, Ramilia Iskander, Dmitrii Nagiev, Liza Arzamasova, Galina Tiunina, Iurii Stoianov, Liudmila Artem’eva
Composer: Mark Willott
Soundtrack: Brainstorm (Prata Vetra), Nyusha
Producers: Iurii Moskvin, Vladimir Nikolaev, Olga Sinelshchikova, Sergei Rappoport, Aleksandr Ligai, Timur Bekmambetov
Production: Wizart Animation, Bazelevs, Inlay Film

Maksim Sveshnikov and Vladlen Barbe: The Snow Queen (Snezhnaia koroleva, 2012)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2013

Updated: 05 Jul 13