Issue 69 (2020)

Darina Shmidt, Konstantin Feoktistov: Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf 4 (Ivan Tsarevich i seryi volk 4, 2019)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2020

Eurovision, Hypnotism, and Exclusivity of the Russian Soul

ivan gray wolf 4Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf 4, directed by Darina Shmidt and Konstantin Feoktistov, produced by the animation studio Melnitsa, and written by Quartet I, premiered on 26 December 2019. The film recently received the award for best full-length feature length animation at the Russian Animated Festival in Suzdal. This well-known film series about Ivan Tsarevich and his loyal assistant, the Gray Wolf, has been quite successful for the Melnitsa studio over the past decade. The first film released in December 2011 became the highest-grossing domestic animation project in 2012. The second film received the Golden Eagle Award for Best Animated Film in 2015. Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf 3 won а prestigious Ikar Russian National Animation prize in 2016.  This most recent film, like the others, is a modern retelling of a combination of Russian fairytales. Its main character, Ivan Tsarevich, is a mix between a simple guy and a prince. The Gray Wolf is insightful and provocative, and Princess Vasilisa is both conventional and atypical. 

ivan gray wolf 4As in the previous films, Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf 4 brings together modern and fairytale worlds to create an engaging two-pronged plot that twists together at the end of the film. In the Far-Away Kingdom, Winter has been long and cold, but as the film begins Spring arrives with a blizzard. Our sad and disheartened heroes throw themselves into the annual all-kingdom singing competition to be held in a nearby kingdom. This singing competition is a very obvious spoof on the Eurovision Song contest that is held every year and attracts primarily European competitors. The Cat-scientist, who sings from the palace rooftop, is the only possible entry from the Far-Away Kingdom. And with nothing better to do Ivan, Vasilisa, and the Gray Wolf set off to the competition to cheer on their entry. However, something suspicious immediately unfolds among the other participants, and therefore Ivan, the Gray Wolf and Vasilisa have to unravel the secrets and save the world not from one threat but two. This film, like the others in the series, keeps the rather simple plot moving with absurd and quickly revolving situations, a heavy sprinkling of puns and gags, as well as modern references to engage the adult viewers.
ivan gray wolf 4Deception appears in all aspects of the animated singing competition. To prepare for the competition Vasilisa rehearses endlessly with the Cat-scientist to perfect his act, while Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf scope out the other singing acts. Sneaking around backstage these two manage to spy on all of the competition including the Cat’s main competitor—the Peacock Paolo and his Gopher manager. This duo is hiding more than the Peacock’s terrible voice. They are a cover-up for a grand plan to take over the world. Hidden behind the hoax of the Peacock is a Cobra princess who wishes to use the song competition as a platform to hypnotize the entire world and force everyone to submit to her will. While the desire to take over the world is certainly the most egregious behavior in the film, Ivan Tsarevich, the Gray Wolf, and Vasilisa are not exceptionally moral. In order to level the competition and uncover the Peacock’s secrets, Ivan disguises himself as a cowboy who offers the Peacock a television contract selling a bubbly drink, with the aim of getting him drunk before he goes on stage. While Ivan’s Russian is perfect, his dress and behavior exhibit the negative side of American advertising and business acumen. Vasilisa poses as a American journalist to lure the Gopher manager away from the Peacock. With her bad American accent and her poor journalistic skills the film is clearly ridiculing the American journalism tradition. This anti-American sentiment continues with the strange Beaver-bodyguards, who speak with American accents and look like characters out of Pulp Fiction while guarding the Cobra and her secrets. The audience even gets a short look into the American White House with an unflattering cameo from a bumbling President Trump. Deception and the ruse are key components of both the villains and the heroes in this film.

However, the West is not the main villain of this film as it was in Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf 3. The second main plot twist also involves trickery; however, the goal is not to take over the world, but to complete a strange collection of emotions collected by Prince Ali, who lives in a parallel Eastern fairy tale world. Prince Ali makes a deal with the Cobra, exchanging a bottle of talent for information about Vasilisa and Ivan. With this information Prince Ali kidnaps Vasilisa to lure Ivan to his kingdom in order to add the elusive emotion of love to his exotic collection. Yet, Prince Ali turns out just to be lonely and misunderstood. He releases our heroes in order to search for true love for himself. Prince Ali helps the heroes return to the competition in time to save the world from the Cobra’s sinister master plan.
ivan gray wolf 4The focus on technology in this film shifts both into future realms and past realms. In the first part of the film old VHS tape static is used to fade between scenes. Some actions are slowed down or sped up or reversed with the added effect of a relatively clear picture overlaid with two or three bars of static. Other times memories are depicted as if they were from silent black and white films. Many scenes are shot as if with an old camera recorder, with the battery life and the word “record” displayed in the corner of the screen. However, there are more modern technological realms as well in the film. Just as Ivan and the Gray Wolf are running out of ideas to spy on the competition, one of the most memorable characters of the film appears. A guy in a hoody that hides his identity produces a tablet linked to video cameras inside the various dressing rooms of the singing completion. The tablet, with pop-up advertisements so familiar to computer users today, allows Ivan and the Gray Wolf to uncover secrets and devise a plan to take out the singing competition. There are also strange technological realms that can’t yet be explained. The Tsar helps the group travel in record time using dice and a board game, which magically transports the group in a bubble just in time to the opening of the singing competition. There are also magic carpets that speed like rockets delivering our heroes in time to save the world.

ivan gray wolf 4Vasilisa, our heroine, has failed to develop into the strong female character that is hinted at in the end of the third film when she kills the villain, thus saving Ivan’s life. In the fourth film Vasilisa is depicted as a woman who loves beautiful clothes, cosmetics, and mindless chatter. However, in the fourth film Vasilisa does have a few instances in which her character shines. On the way to the competition she reads Anna Karenina, demonstrating that she is capable of understanding great literature, but Vasilisa is not the type of person to understand the bind in which society places women like Anna and, by extension, herself. When Ali tries to steal Ivan and Vasilisa’s love for his collection, Vasilisa insightfully explains that it is impossible to capture love in this way as love can’t exist apart from the lovers themselves. Finally, Vasilisa rises to the level of hero once again at the end of the film. When Ivan and the Gray Wolf fail to position the mirror in front of the Cobra to interrupt her hypnosis of the world, Vasilisa jumps into action to position the mirror and turn the Cobra to stone. Luck is on the heroes’ side, and the hypnotic spell is broken and the world is free. It is unfortunate that Darina Shmidt, one of the most well-known female animation directors, is unable to bring the audience a less stereotypical heroine.

The weakest aspect of this film is the music. With the Eurovision-like singing contest woven into the very plot of the film, the musical numbers still leave a lot to be desired. The film appears to focus mostly on reproductions of Russian folk songs, and re-imaginings of old Soviet songs such as Black Cat (Chernyi kot, 1963) by Iurii Saul’skii based on the verse by Mikhail Tanich, and even songs from old Soviet cartoons, for example the Serenade of the Troubadour (Serenada trubadura) by Gennadii Gladkov and Iurii Entin from the film On the Trail of the Bremen Musicians (Po sledam bremenskikh muzykantov, Vasilii Livanov, 1973). At the end of the film the Cat wins the singing competition with a version of Everything Will Pass (Vse proidet) by Leonid Derbenev from the film Where Is He Going (Kuda on denetsia, 1981, Georgii Iungval’d-Khil’kevich). Melnitsa had a chance to create a hit soundtrack with original new hit songs for this film and push Russian animation to the next level. Instead, the audience is treated to songs that focus on the past and on Russian exclusivity.

Lora Mjolsness,
UC Irvine

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Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf 4 (Ivan Tsarevich i Seryi Volk 2), Russian 2019
Animated Film, Color, 88 minutes
Director: Darina Shmidt, Konstantin Feoktistov
Scriptwriters: Leonid Barats, Rostislav Khait, Sergei Petreikov
Voice Actors: Nikita Efremov, Ivan Okhlobystin, Mikhail Boiarskii, Sergei Volchkov, Ravshan Kurkova
Production: CTB Film Company, Studio Melnitsa
Producers: Aleksander Boiarskii, Sergei Selianov

Darina Shmidt, Konstantin Feoktistov: Ivan Tsarevich and the Gray Wolf 4 (Ivan Tsarevich i seryi volk 4, 2019)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2020

Updated: 2020