Issue 63 (2019)

Maksim Volkov, Vitalii Mukhametzianov: Sadko (2017)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2019

sadkoThe Sadko of Russian folklore is a rich Novgorod merchant with exceptional skill at playing the gusli, a zither-style traditional Russian musical instrument. His story is told in Russian epic song, the bylina, and, because this is oral traditional poetry, it is found in variants and exists in either two episodes or one. In the fuller version, Sadko charms the king of the sea with his music and gains tremendous wealth from his shipping business. In fact, he accumulates so much money that he boasts that he could buy all of Novgorod. Excessive hubris in Russian epic seldom goes unpunished and this is true in the case of Sadko. Not only is he unable to out-finance Novgorod but, on his next sea voyage—the subject of the second and better-known episode—disaster strikes. When Sadko’s pride prevents him from keeping his promises and paying homage to the king of the sea, his entire fleet of ships stops and will not move. At this point, either Sadko sacrifices himself to the sea or his men throw him overboard, depending on the particular version of the epic. Once in the undersea kingdom, Sadko again uses his music to his advantage and charms the sea king once more. He is allowed to live and is told to choose one of the daughters of the king as his bride. The daughters are many, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, and Sadko must choose the correct one. The “correct” daughter is herself enamored of Sadko and helps him make the proper choice. The daughter’s name is frequently given as Cherniava, a name with negative implications in Russian. Sadko does choose her, but never consummates the marriage. The next morning, he wakes up on the banks of the river Cherniava and is able to return home to his human wife.

sadkoThe Sadko of contemporary Russian animation is nothing like the epic hero. He is indeed possessed of exceptional musical skills and he does descend to the bottom of the sea, but his is a story that borrows from various Disney and Soiuzmul’tfil’m productions to produce a family-friendly film. The story begins with the head of the city of Novgorod kicking out a musician he does not like and demanding better. Next, we see a peasant family working in the garden. The boy of this family is Sadko and he, of course, prefers playing his gusli to doing anything else. Soon a military force from Novgorod arrives demanding Sadko. He is carried off (quite literally) to the city and forced to play for a match-making session during which men from various nations vie for the hand of the tsar’s daughter. This scene is reminiscent of one in the Soviet era animated film, The Last Bride of Zmei Gorynych (Posledniaia nevesta Zmeia-gorynycha, dir. Roman Davydov, 1978), where women of various nations are presented as brides to the dragon (the zmei), and also of a scene in About Fedot the Shooter (Pro Fedota Streltsa, udalogo molodtsa, dir. Liudmila Steblianko, 2008) where the king tries to marry off his daughter to various foreigners. As in the above-mentioned films, the foreign grooms here all prove to be disastrous in various ways and the scene ends in a brawl. When it is all over, the tsar tells his daughter, who proves to be far less attractive than the image behind which she hides, to choose which man she wants and she announces that she wants the musician. Just about at the same time, a little Viking shows up to court the princess, but is thrown out because it is too late. He is insulted and vows vengeance.

Sadko is brought back and forced to sign a marriage contract. That night he goes home and asks his father how one knows when one is in love. The father, who is married to a woman many times his size, says that, when you are in love, you feel goosebumps all over. The next day, as Sadko stands with the princess in the coerced wedding ceremony, he finally admits that he feels no goosebumps. He checks the legs of his bride and finds no goosebumps there either and escapes. The chase scene that ensues takes Sadko and his pursuers through Novgorod and down to the riverbank. During the chase, Sadko manages to accidentally snag a talking parrot. After hiding under water for a time and breathing through a reed, Sadko emerges only to be chased again. This time the chase forces him unto a boat that heads out to sea. Sadko sleeps and the parrot begins to explore the ship. The parrot is attracted to anything shiny, and in the hold of the ship discovers a chain which he pulls. This dislodges a plug that lets water rush in, causing the ship to start to sink. If that were not bad enough, the angry Viking shows up, recognizes Sadko’s ship as a Russian vessel, and hits it with a cannon ball. Sadko and the talking parrot sink to the bottom of the sea, along with the cannon.

sadkoThe next scene takes place in the underwater kingdom. A beautiful mermaid, who we later learn is called Speedy Pike (Bystraia Shchuchka), is being chased by a rather plump green merman. She escapes, partially because Sadko drifts down and interrupts the chase. Before Sadko passes out, he and the mermaid see each other and sparks fly. The fat merman chasing Speedy Pike captures Sadko and his parrot and takes them to the capitol of the kingdom where his mother rules. Barracuda, this underground ruler, uses her magic to allow Sadko and the parrot to “breathe” and function underwater. As we soon learn, all is not well at the bottom of the sea. King Carp is asleep, apparently somnambulated and incapacitated by the magic of his wife Barracuda. When Sadko is brought in, the locals try to figure out who and what he is. As is his wont, he plays his gusli and King Carp begins to stir, much to the distress of his power-usurper wife. Sadko’s gusli are labeled an instrument of destruction and Sadko and his parrot companion are imprisoned, with their execution scheduled for the following day.

sadkoSpeedy Pike spies on them through the prison window and becomes further entranced as she listens to Sadko play his gusli and sing. Just then, Barracuda swims by, opens the door to an underground vault and descends, followed by Speedy Pike. In the vault, Barracuda keeps a magic mirror which she uses to conjure up the spirit of the sleeping King Carp. She asks the spirit if anything can break her spell over him and the spirit replies that a mighty Russian warrior, a bogatyr’, will descend into their underwater kingdom and free him from the spell. Speedy Pike hears all of this, decides that Sadko must be the hero of the prophecy, and comes up with a plan to save him and his parrot. She swims to a pirate ship populated by its deceased crew and asks them to help rescue Sadko. She offers money for their services and they laugh. But when she says that she might get King Carp to restore them to human form, because she is his ostracized daughter, they become interested. The next day is the planned execution, and Sadko and the parrot are brought to a huge contraption that bites off various body parts. Since they are not sea creatures, the queen decides to bite off their heads. Speedy Pike stops the falling jaws of the biting contraption just in time; almost simultaneously the dead pirates come in on a huge manta ray, beat up the residents of the sea kingdom, and allow Speedy Pike and Sadko to escape. As they flee to the pirate ship, Sadko asks Speedy Pike why she saved him. She replies because he saved her from the fat green merman, one of Barracuda’s sons. As they gaze at each other, Sadko gets goosebumps all over and realizes that Speedy Pike is the one.

sadkoOn the pirate ship there are various humorous scenes as Sadko, a slight young man, tries to wield the sword of a real Russian bogatyr’ that had fallen to the bottom of the sea while Sadko and the parrot sank. Back in her underground vault, Queen Barracuda reveals her true nature. She is not a beautiful woman: she is a purple squid. She looks in the mirror and claims that all women need some make-up and starts to transform herself just as her sons arrive to tell where she can find Sadko. Barracuda decides to violate her husband’s truce with the dead pirates and attack their ship. She musters her troops, puts her sleeping husband at their head, prepares a huge idol called Tubidu (presumably a reference to a Russian children’s ditty rather than to Frank Sinatra or the Flintstones), which her soldiers draw into battle. Meanwhile Speedy Pike takes Sadko to her home, from which they hear the approaching troops. Sadko tells Speedy Pike to go warn the pirates as he holds off the troops. He tries to throw a stone at the idol only to fall inside and start issuing confusing directions until he is discovered and captured again. Sadko asks Queen Barracuda why she hates music and the large green son, who had chased Speedy Pike at the beginning, reveals that it is music that can break the spell which keeps King Carp asleep. Sadko realizes that, while he is indeed the promised champion who must awaken the king, he does not need to do this with a sword, but with his gusli. Sadko starts to play and his music, as on all previous occasions, gets everyone dancing, including the somnambulant King Carp. Furious, Barracuda uses her magic to arouse the Tubidu idol. It turns purple, comes alive and goes on the attack. It grabs Sadko and, worse still, breaks all of the strings on his gusli. At this point, Shustrik, Speedy Pike’s little fish companion, comes to the rescue with seaweed that can be used as strings. Sadko starts to play again and again it is magic. Barracuda breaks her magic trident and the spell that allows Sadko to “breathe” is also broken. He starts to drown and Speedy Pike has Shustrik and his tiny pals carry Sadko to the surface so that he can live.

Sadko wants to drown again so that he can be with Speedy Pike, but just then the Viking ship arrives and starts to attack Novgorod. Sadko rushes to help, as do all of the citizens of Novgorod. Sadko is captured by the Vikings and is about to be shot from a cannon when Speedy Pike swims to the surface followed by her father and the now tame Tubidu. Novgorod is saved. And there is more joy ahead. The Viking leader spies the Novgorod ruler’s daughter in armor, thinks she is a Valkyrie, and falls in love—a love that she happily returns. King Carp does keep his daughter’s promise and gives the dead pirates back their lives, allowing the pirate leader to reunite with his beloved, who had waited for him these many years. And he also magically transforms Speedy Pike, giving her legs to replace her mermaid tail and allowing her to breathe. This is all celebrated with a musical number.

sadkoSadko is a feel-good movie with a happy ending that unabashedly borrows from Disney. The parallels to Little Mermaid (dir. Ron Clements, John Musker, 1989) are obvious, and the borrowings extend far beyond plot similarities. Speedy Pike is red-headed like Ariel. She may not wear a bra made of sea-shells and she may be a little less curvy, in keeping with modern aesthetics, but a take-off on Ariel she is. She even has a small fish companion. Barracuda is the same color as Ursula in The Little Mermaid and the bottom of her body consists of octopus tentacles rather than a fishtail, just like Ursula’s. Like Ursula, she wants to rule the underwater world and does her best to get rid of the king’s daughter, in this case Speedy Pike. The ghost ship with dead pirates is reminiscent of a similar ship in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (dir. Gore Verbinski, 2006). Rurik the Viking seems based on Stoick the Vast from How to Tame Your Dragon (dir. Chris Sanders, Dean DeBlois, 2010). And the large green son of Queen Barracuda looks remarkably like Incredible Hulk (dir. Louis Leterrier, 2008).

Animators from the Russian Federation, especially those working in studios outside Moscow and St Petersburg, seem to be into assorted Disney spin-offs. For example, the Snow Queen series, produced in Voronezh, capitalizes on Frozen (dir. Jennifer Lee, Chris Buck, 2013). Sadko is produced even further from the center in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan. Mukha, the studio that created this feature, is staffed by young and eager animators many of whom, like their supervisor Liliia Abdrakhmanova, are ethnic Bashkirs.[1] They are clearly into the technical aspect of animation. A televised report that aired on Bashkir Television in November 2017 shows the team as they create their 3D images. Abdrakhmanova speaks about both the animation process itself and the plot of this film. As she states, the studio was trying to follow the “conventions of animation” and to make the original epic plot less gloomy and more entertaining. This can be seen as an explanation for the multiple borrowings that probably allowed the staff to concentrate on technique while relying on tried-and-true box office fare for the story.

While heavily dependent on Disney Studios, Marvel, and Dreamworks, the film Sadko is aimed at a Russian audience. Mukha follows in studio Mel’nitsa’s footsteps and chooses an epic hero who does exist in Russian folklore. Furthermore, it retains his traditional traits, namely his musical abilities and his trip to the bottom of the sea. It makes use of Russian stereotypes, such as having the hero’s mother be huge and strong, but married to a tiny man whom she obeys. Standing jokes abound, such as the one about Russian celebrations typically descending into brawls and, when the various suitors of the princess start to fight, one of the guards remarks that, if there is this good a brawl now, imagine how much fun the wedding will be. There are allusions to the modern world similar to the ones in Mel’nitsa’s Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf series (Ivan Tsaervich i seryi volk 1–3, dir. Vladimir Toropchin, 2011, 2013, 2016), for example when Sadko suggests that he be sentenced to community service rather than prison. There are also borrowings from Russian films (see Anon. 2018). Conventions found in Mel’nitsa films, such as offering a plentitude of musical numbers and featuring the appearance of a giant monster just prior to the happy conclusion are observed. However, according to Kinopoisk this film has grossed the equivalent of just over $1 million since its Russian release (the international release is scheduled for November), compared with such figures as $24, 19 and 9 million respectively for the Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf series.


1] The studio was established by Vitalii Mukhametzianov, founder of the first Soviet/Russian comics periodical of the same title (Mukha) and published between 1991–2009; they made the first CGI music clips in the mid 1990s for Alisa, Chaif, and later Alsu, Gliukoza and DDT. Due to inflation, the publication closed in 2009; around 2012 they approached Sergei Sel’ianov with the project for Sadko and, having satisfied himself of their working ability, Sel’ianov’s CTB backed the project for a feature film directed by Mukhametzianov until his death, when Maksim Volkov led the project to completion. [Editor’s note; B.B.]

Natalie Kononenko
University of Alberta

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Works Cited

Anon. 2018. “7 veshchei, kotorye nado znat' pered prosmotrom ‘Sadko’.” 25 May.

Sadko, Russia, 2017
Color, 81 minutes
Directors: Maksim Volkov, Vitalii Mukhametzianov (1965–2016)
Script: Aleksandr Arkhipov, Dmitrii Novoselov
Composer: Aleksandr Sagitov
Voices: Timur Garipov (Sadko), Mariia Shalaeva (Princess Nasten’ka), Liubov Aksenova (Speedy Pike), Diomid Vinogradov (Rurik), Ekaterina Varnava (Barracuda), Dmitrii Filimonov (Yasha the Parrot), Anatolii Konstantinov (King Carp), Evgeniia Barinova (Sadko’s mother), Valentin Pankov (Sadko’s father)
Producers: Sergei Sel’ianov, Vitalii Mukhametzianov, Artur Abdrakhmanov
Production: CTB, Studio Mukha  
Release: 24 May 2018

Maksim Volkov, Vitalii Mukhametzianov: Sadko (2017)

reviewed by Natalie Kononenko © 2019

Updated: 2019