Issue 61 (2018)

Dmitrii D’iachenko: The Last Warrior (Poslednii bogatyr’, 2017)

reviewed by Rachel Stauffer © 2018

last warriorDisney’s fairy tale phantasmagoria, The Last Warrior, was released in Russia with much anticipation in late October 2017, and by November 2017 was one of the highest grossing films in recent Russian-language cinema. The film’s director, Dmitrii D’iachenko, is well known for his television series The Kitchen (Kukhnia, 2012-present), and for his popular film What Men Talk About (O chem govoriat muzhchiny, 2010) and its sequel What Else Men Talk About (O chem eschshe govoriat muzhchiny, 2011). Given D’iachenko’s success in recent years, it is not surprising that his collaboration with Disney has found similar mass appeal on the Russian market.

last warriorThe film’s opening credits feature Disney’s usual introductory animation with the iconic castle, fireworks, and the unmistakable melody of “When You Wish Upon a Star.” However, for this film, towards the end of the introduction, Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs walks across the screen. The action of The Last Warrior then opens with the pursuit of one of the most famous heroes of Russian epics (byliny), Alesha Popovich, by the princess of the fictional fairy-tale town of Belogor’e, Varvara, who turns out to be the wife of another hero of Russian byliny, Dobrynia Nikitich. Varvara initially takes the shape of an owl, pursuing Popovich from the air, across a giant field with only Alesha Popovich in a scene that very subtly nods to Viktor Vasnetsov’s famous painting of the three most famous knights, or bogatyrs.

Alesha and Varvara face off after she resumes her human form, shooting a whip made of blue lightning out of her hand at Popovich’s sword, making the metal turn into rubber, and the sword useless. She also uses this power to turn Popovich and, as the film reveals, all of the epic heroes (except for Dobrynia), into stone. We don’t initially know the source of Varvara’s magical powers, but it may allude to Dobrynia’s whip in some byliny. As it turns out, Varvara and Dobrynia have illegitimately harnessed this unusual blue lightning power from Koshchei the Deathless, whom they have imprisoned, dismembered and decapitated, with his arms, torso, legs, and head in separate blocks of ice; and since he is Koshchei the Deathless, his head remains completely conscious, despite the condition of the rest of his body.

last warriorAfter transforming Alesha Popovich into stone, Varvara turns to a white horse saying, “Haven’t you gotten tired of saving the bogatyrs?” and the horse transforms into a short, bearded old man in a long robe with a wooden staff, who says “No, I haven’t,” just before he throws himself off a cliff into the sea, shape-shifting into a fish, swimming into the distance past a crowd of stone bogatyrs standing on the sea floor as the film’s title splashes onto the screen. From there, we are shown present-day Moscow, where we meet a young self-described “White Magician,” who calls himself Svetozar, the name of one of the Slavic pagan pantheon’s gods of sun and light. In Moscow, Svetozar, whose real name is Ivan—alluding to many Russian skazki, is a very successful competitor on a reality game show called “Battle of the Magicians” in which he regularly tricks people into believing that he has supernatural, clairvoyant, shamanistic, and/or healing powers akin to those of a koldun or volkhv. He also conducts private sessions in order to rid clients of curses from the evil eye or “spoiling” (porcha). The film does a surprisingly good job of depicting authentic rituals associated with East Slavic folk belief and healing in the portrayal of Ivan (or Vania) removing curses, porcha, or negative energy with candles, wax, and fire. Ivan’s live-in housekeeper in his swanky Moscow City apartment consistently gives him a hard time about how he takes advantage of people and fools them into believing he has special powers. Vania is not entirely morally bankrupt, however. When a client requests assistance with bringing a child out of a coma, Vania declines to help, ostensibly because he knows he actually cannot help. 

last warriorIn response to Vania’s bogus revelation to a client that her husband is cheating on her with more than one woman, the husband and a couple of goons confront and threaten Vania, who escapes by sliding down a high waterslide in an aqua-park. At the end of the slide, instead of landing in a pool of water, he is thrust out of a large hole in a tree into an empty field. An old, bearded man with a wooden staff appears out of nowhere—the same bearded man whom Varvara had confronted earlier about saving the bogatyrs; so now we realize that Vania is in Belogor’e. The old man reveals that Vania, who grew up in an orphanage, is the son of Il’ia Muromets, the last bogatyr’, who has been turned to stone and is on display in Dobrynia and Varvara’s castle. Part of Vania’s backstory as an orphan is told in a flashback, in which he is shown being bullied by other boys in the children’s home while wearing a wizard hat and robe. The boys make fun of him for his koldunstvo and lock him in a closet. In the closet young Vania finds a needle and uses it to loosen the bolts on the door to escape, and while the bullies are sleeping, he uses the needle to sew them into their beds. The needle is a recurring magical item in variants of Russian fairy tales about the Frog Princess and Vasilisa the Beautiful; throughout the film, Vania wears an amulet with the needle as a good-luck charm.

last warriorBack in Belogor’e, after he is unceremoniously shackled and shoved into a dungeon after being introduced to Dobrynia and Varvara as Il’ia Muromets’ son, Vania meets Koshchei the Deathless. Baba Yaga and Vasilisa arrive to help Koshchei escape from Varvara and Dobrynia’s dungeon, and Vania convinces them to take him along. The four embark on a journey to stop Dobrynia and Varvara, who are holding Koshchei’s power, later also revealed to be his death, in a skull-shaped charm, the magic of which powers Varvara’s blue whip. An animated short film within the film explains the legend of the magical item, that if the skull-shaped charm is inserted into the handle of a specific sword during an eclipse, the person who holds the sword becomes immortal. With this, Dobrynia and Varvara’s plans to become immortal are revealed, and Vania, Vasilisa, Baba Yaga, and Koshchei set out on their quest to find the magical sword before Varvara does. Hilarity, magic, and many adventures ensue.  

The writers of The Last Warrior have asserted some artistic license in their re-characterization of Russia’s epic folk heroes to meet the story’s purposes, particularly with regard to Dobrynia Nikitich and Varvara; however, the recasting works well with the film’s plot, even if it is not fully faithful to the byliny. For example, in the byliny, Dobrynia marries a polianitsa, Nastas’ia, who has an nasty edge (Dixon-Kennedy 1998: 202), so although the name of the “barbarian” Varvara is a creative addition, perhaps the cruel and dangerous disposition of Varvara is based on Nastas’ia.

last warriorThe film’s characterizations of Baba Yaga, Koshchei the Deathless, and Vasilisa (the Beautiful or the Wise) are mostly accurate. Baba Yaga’s hut on chicken legs plays an important role and the animation and special effects used to create the hut are executed particularly well. The inside of Baba Yaga’s hut is filled with dried plants and herbs and mysterious potions, emphasizing her character in many skazki as a baba, not a ved’ma.  In one part of the film, Vania and his fairy-tale entourage enlist the help of the water spirit Vodyanoi, whom they transport in Baba Yaga’s mortar, which the Vodyanoi fills with water to survive the trip. The Vodyanoi is especially entertaining, and his physical form bears a strong resemblance to Ivan Bilibin’s renderings of figures from Russian folklore. Baba Yaga’s depiction and her mortar and hut in the film are also reminiscent of Bilibin’s work. The three-headed dragon from the byliny, Zmei Gorynych, also makes an appearance as a small creature the size of a large bird, whom the characters find more annoying than threatening. The disappointingly small size of Zmei Gorynych serves as a source of humor, not unlike characters in Western animated films who talk a big game but don’t actually pose much of a threat (e.g., The Lion King’s young Simba or Shrek’s title character). The dialogue and action of the film is often funny, combining the folkloric and the real worlds effectively through humor. Vania’s cell phone, for example, makes it to Belogor’e, which leads to a montage of selfie-taking with Vania, Koshchei, Baba Yaga, and Vasilisa, for example. An equally funny moment occurs when the foursome plus the Vodyanoi are trapped in a cave occupied by a giant who tries to squash them with her wooden spoon. Vania uses his cell phone to play Stas Mikhailov’s popular song “Everything Is for You” (“Vse dlia tebia”, 2006). The giant is sufficiently wooed by Mikhailov’s schmaltzy lyrics and the group escapes the cave. Vania also uses his cell phone to take a photo of a dungeon guard, claiming that he has stolen the guard’s soul, subsequently confusing the guard long enough to buy time for Vania to run away. In Moscow, in order initially to try to evade confrontation with his client’s husband, Vania pretends to get a phone call, which he answers with “Oh, hello, Vladimir Vladimirovich,” clearly joking, but also humorously suggesting that Putin is one of his clients. These little comedic touches make the film light and also enjoyable for adults as well as for children.

The film incorporates many allusions to skazki, byliny, and upper and lower Slavic mythology, which, for anyone familiar with Slavic oral and spiritual culture, are easily recognizable. Of course the bogatyrs are epic heroes, whereas Baba Yaga, Vasilisa, and Koshchei live in the fairy tales, so there’s some unusual overlap between the two types of oral culture, but for the audience and the story, this is really of no consequence.For those who are less familiar with Slavic folklore, the film is still easy enough to follow, although much of the folkloric significance is likely to be less accessible for those with less acquaintance with East Slavic folklore. There are plans for a sequel to the film (Olenin 2018), so we can look forward to that and hope that the sequel will at least sustain The Last Warrior’s dazzling presentation of Slavic folkloric motifs, mythologies, and magic. This reviewer is very excited about the sequel and also sees great utility in using the film in the teaching of courses on East Slavic folklore.

Rachel Stauffer 
Virginia Tech and James Madison University

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Works Cited

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. 1998. Encyclopedia of Russian & Slavic Myth and Legend. ABC-Clio.

Olenin, Dima. 2018. “Disney gotovit prodolzhenie fil’ma-skazki ‘Poslednii bogatyr’’.” Federal’noe agenstvo novostei. 16 February.

“’The Last Warrior’ Becomes Highest Grossing Film in Russia’s History.” Russia Beyond the Headlines

The Last Warrior , Russia, 2017
Color, 114 minutes
Director: Dmitrii D’iachenko
Screenplay: Vitalii Shliappo, Vasilii Kutsenko, Dimitrii Ian, Pavel Danilov, Igor’ Tudvasev
Cinematographer: Sergei Trofimov
Production Design: Grigorii Pushkin, Marina Anan’eva, Irina Lunina
Music: George Callis
Cast: Viktor Khoriniak, Mila Sivatskaia, Ekaterina Vilkova, Elena Iakovleva, Konstantin Lavronenko, Evgenii Diatlov, Aleksandr Semchev, Sergei Burunov
Producers: Marina Zhigalova-Ozkan, Eduard Iloyan, Vitalii Shliappo, Denis Zhalinskii, Aleksei Trotsiuk, Aleksandr Kushaev, Mikhail Tkachenko, Vasilii Kutsenko, Ruslan Tatarintsev, Georgii Shabanov, Iuliia Klimenko, Grigorii Stoyalov, Leonid Petrov, Ol’ga Maksimova, Vladimir Grammatikov

Dmitrii D’iachenko: The Last Warrior (Poslednii bogatyr’, 2017)

reviewed by Rachel Stauffer © 2018

Updated: 2018