Issue 66 (2019)

Marina Nefedova: The Princess and the Dragon (Printsessa i drakon, 2018)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2019

princess dragon Marina Nefedova’s The Princess and the Dragon, produced by Licensing Brands and sponsored by the Russian Cinema Fund, is an animated film about a little princess Vavara who falls through the pages of a fairytale book into a fantastical land with talking dragons, colorful creatures, and gnomes. In this land Vavara learns of a magical mirror that can reunite her with her missing mother. As in fairytales Vavara makes three trips to this land before she returns home with her new best friend, the dragon Dragosha, and together, they search for the mirror. The animated feature premiered in Russia on 19 August 2018 with a wider distribution on 23 August 2019. It brought in a little over one million dollars in Russia and CIS, 41 per cent of this amount during its opening weekend placing it in 3rd place for weekend box office earnings.

While Nefedova is not new to animation or directing, The Princess and the Dragon is her first feature-length animated film. She graduated from the Moscow Animation Institute and the Courses for Animators at the animation studio Pilot. From 1992 to 2008 she worked as an animator, beginning her directorial career in 2009 directing several episodes of the world-famous Masha and the Bear (Masha i medved’) produced by Animaccord. Nefedova is part of a growing number of women directors in the Russian animation industry, which has made space for women’s voices and women’s animated film in the 2010s. Over the past decade both the increasing financial stability and the geographical expansion of the animation industry have given women more opportunities to direct, but often not without a fight.

princess dragon However, audiences have been quite rightfully mixed in their reception of Nefedova’s first feature film. The script, written Vasilii Rovenskii, starts out predictably but appropriately for an animated film aimed at a younger audience. Princess Vavara’s sorcerer mother has disappeared and the little Princess is left in the hands of her inept father, King Alistair, and his evil scheming advisor Balthazar. On the night before her 7th birthday Vavara falls into the pages of a fairytale book, but instead of heading out on a quest to find her mother in this magical land, side plots are started in an attempt to stray from the expected.

Despite the fact that the animation quality seems more in line with a streaming series on YouTube or Netflix, rather than a feature film, the fairytale world is visually pleasing with bright colors, rainbow slides, and fantastic animals. In the fairytale world, Vavara meets an unusual purple half elephant/half rabbit with a blue stripe and a flying half cat/half squirrel. These characters are visually attractive, but do not participate actively in the plot. Vavara seems to invoke visually at least certain parallels to Elsa from Disney’s Frozen’s (2013)— she has big blue eyes that slant upward at the outer corners when she concentrates and she wears her blond hair in an upswept two-braid hairdo. However, her movement and character development fall short even for most streaming animated series. In the fairytale world, she makes friends with a green dragon, Dragosha, and they experience many adventures—pumpkins that grow bigger than a house, rope traps set by gnomes, a magic wand that transforms people and animals, and a magic mirror that allows you to communicate with people far away. While the film attempts to hold the story line together by repeating the side plots in the fairytale world again in the “real” world, the result is hard to follow and makes for a slow-moving film. For instance, Vavara attempts to start a garden with pumpkins when she returns from the storybook world where the pumpkins grew as large as a house. In part, it feels like Vavara reinvents the adventures she has in the fairytale world in an attempt to fill her lonely existence in the real world. But the final resolution of the film’s plot does not satisfactorily answer the questions about the disappearance of the sorcerer-mother. While the mother does reappear in the end of the film, the audience is never told where she was, how she got back, or what happened to her.

princess dragonThe evil advisor Baltazar and King Alistair also seem poorly developed and leave the viewer with more questions than answers. The King, who freely admits he is depressed because his wife is gone, does not appear to actually do anything, including taking care of his daughter Vavara. He claims to have searched/to be searching for his wife, but we don’t actually see it. He does sing about searching for her, however. Evil advisor Baltazar, of course, wants to rule the kingdom, but his plans to take power have little connection to the plot. Baltazar offers the king a vacation, a war and a witch to mend his broken heart to get him out of the kingdom. In one of the most confusing scenes the King calls his advisor in the middle of the night to close a over-stuffed chest. The King forces Baltazar to sing on top of the chest, while other people stand around watching. Could not those other people help close the chest? Could the King not wait until morning? 

The most disappointing aspect of this film is in the voices. Vavara is voiced by Ani Lorak, a well-known Ukrainian singer, who represented Ukraine in the 2008 Eurovision song contest. While having Lorak voice the seven-year-old girl may have been an attempt at celebrity voice recognition to attract an adult audience, Lorak’s middle-aged voice does not match the seven-year-old on the screen. With such a popular and talented singer involved with the film, one would expect quality songs. The three songs are all short two-minute interludes that have repetitive lyrics and strange melodies. While these songs may be an attempt at satirizing the common musical format of animated films for children, the film would have been stronger without the characters breaking into songs.

The soundtrack for the film, sung by Ani Lorak in both Russian and English, stands out from the rest of the songs. Based on the soundtrack composed by Giorgio Moroder for the Never-Ending Story (Die unendliche Geschichte, dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 1984), the soundtrack rewritten for Princess and the Dragon is one of the best parts of the film. Surprisingly, while the soundtrack plays on several trailers advertising the film, the song does not open the Russian version of the film. It does play in a trailer-like closing at the end of the film.

princess dragonThis film is also disappointing on another level. Since Nefedova began her directorial career with the series Masha and the Bear, it is hard not to compare the extremely successful series with The Princess and the Dragon. Both feature a little girl who trespasses on another’s home. Vavara, like Masha, wants to play and causes destruction in her wake. And while Vavara is adventurous, high spirited, naughty, and in a way like Masha, the Dragon and Vavara do not play out the child/parent relationship demonstrated in Masha and the Bear. Instead the Dragon is more of an unwilling playmate...a grumpy, nervous, anxious and uptight child in the beginning of the film who eventually mellows and demonstrates his bravery as the film progresses. One of the positive aspects of the character development in this film is that while Dragosha does swoop in to save Vavara several times, Vavara is not a helpless princess. Vavara is often fearless and determined and saves Dragosha during their escapades as well. 

One interesting development has occurred over the last few months with The Princess and the Dragon. Starting on 4 June 2019, the film was available to stream on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Google Play and Vudu in the United States. The English version was distributed by Umbrella Entertainment. This is a clear step towards a more self-reliant Russian animation industry that relies less on the state to finance their films and actively works to present their films to a broader international audience.  

Lora Mjolsness
University of California, Irvine

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The Princess and the Dragon, Russia, 2018
70 minutes
Director: Marina Nefedova
Screenwriter: Vasilii Rovenskii
Producer: Roman Borisevich, Maksim Rogalskii, Vasilii Rovenskii
Voices: Ani Lorak, Sergei Smirnov, Konstantin Kozhevnikov, Diomid Vinogradov
Music: A. Gryzlov, D. Dvoretskii, V. Rovenskii, D. Moroder
International Distribution: Juraj Barabas

Marina Nefedova: The Princess and the Dragon (Printsessa i drakon, 2018)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2019

Updated: 2019