Five Peculiar Soviet Cartoons for the Holidays
This hall of cartoon fame starts and ends with Russia, as it was the most prolific producer of animations.
Since it’s that time of year again, readers with (or without) an interest in the Soviet Union could use recommendations for Soviet cartoons to watch over the holidays that are the antithesis of the usual Santa-Claus fare.
An outlet for entertainment, propaganda, social commentary and artistic expression, animation was a huge business in the USSR. Arguably, animated films can tell more about the Soviet Union than some history books. Many of them continue to exert vast cultural influence to this day.
The list below attempts to look beyond blockbusters like Gena the Crocodile or "The Bremen Town Musicians" to highlight a few artistic curiosities from the late Soviet period, the era of stagnation (застой) and perestroika in politics, but of creativity in film. This hall of cartoon fame starts and ends with Russia, as it was the most prolific producer of animations.
Soviet cartoons were not all the jolly adventures of a wolf and bunny in "Just You Wait "("Ну, Погоди!"), Moscow’s answer to Tom and Jerry. There was a whole world of delightfully depressing, poetic animations: a hedgehog lost in a fog full of phantasmagorical, spooky visions; a lonely little girl who wants a puppy so badly that she imagines that her mitten is one.
Many of these stories progressed in a Chekhovian mood of melancholy and hopelessness – perhaps reflective of the era, the 1970s and 1980s, when they were filmed. Downcast weather, mournful sounds of classical music or soft jazz and the narrators’ wistful tones add to the gloom.
If you’d like to introduce your kids to a depressing lesson about life, by all means make them watch “Dandelion.” A moody, stop-motion affair with the 1970s written all over it, this is a philosophical tale of a big-eyed little boy who gets a preview of his life ahead.
Three blacksmithing gnomes give the boy three magic keys that open doors to stages in life, but with a disclaimer: the right moral choices must be made at each point. The boy progresses from childhood to adolescence, making friends and meeting his first love. A vain promise of wealth eventually costs him these treasures.
Wrinkles and worry appear on his face as he moves to adulthood. The setting and music grow increasingly sinister. He makes his way through a macabre forest, where birds and butterflies die. A cloud recedes to reveal a prison, guarded by an executioner. White hands, silhouetted against a black backdrop, extend from prison in a plea for help. Once again, the protagonist fails the test of conscience and turns into an old man, kneeling in a blizzard. He blew his chance. His life is over. The only place to go from here is death.
It all turns out to be a dream at the end, but that does little to take away the bitter aftertaste this cartoon leaves.
2. “In the Blue Sea, in the White Foam," 1984, Armenia
You have got to love this fantastical romp by Armenfilm about a crafty fisherman boy caught in the clutches of a goofily evil sea king. After having the indiscretion to free the king from a bottle, the boy gets dragged underwater. There, he finds himself surrounded by freakish sea monsters – often crossbreeds of fish and musical instruments – which are capering around, singing and gobbling up one another.
While the boy tries to go back to his grandfather, the sea king tries to sell him on the idea of becoming his adoptive son and heir. The king insists it is a sweet deal: rule over the seas for two millennia, sink and loot ships, get rich. But the boy is unimpressed: “Sinking ships for 2,000 years?”
Then, the king’s daughter – part fish, part woman -- makes her grand entry. She comes riding a shark and singing a song that was to become a Soviet-wide hit and karaoke staple. The boy eventually uses an old trick to dupe the king into climbing back into the bottle.
3. "Zakro and Shakro," 1973, Georgia
Zakro and Shakro are the good truck and the bad truck in this cautionary tale about DUI. Both characters sport felt caps and mustaches, the standard look for Georgian men throughout much of the Soviet era, but, otherwise, they are complete opposites.
Zakro is a mensch, abides by the traffic rules and duly delivers his load to a construction site. Along the way, he hooks up with a charming milk truck and the pair travel along together, exchanging honks of love.
Shakro, by contrast, has no brakes. He is swilling alcohol, speeding and chain-smoking. He bumps into a truck fatale, an odalisque on wheels who delivers wine. As they hit it off, she goes into a sexy dance, offering Shakro a taste of her load. Next, you see Shakro drunk, pedal to the metal and guffawing madly. He eventually crashes into a road roller and gets totalled. It is left to kindly Zakro to tow Shakro’s lifeless body off the road.
Unlike the rest of the animations listed here, this short film was not made with a pan-Soviet audience in mind. It is quintessentially Georgian – indeed, some of its road scenes may bring to mind complaints about today’s Tbilisi drivers.
Many animated films produced in Georgia during the late Soviet period – among them, "The Dreamer," "Watermelon," "Tasiko the Goose" – are similarly idiosyncratic and reflective of Georgian culture. To fully appreciate these films, a nuanced knowledge of the Georgian language is needed.
Helpfully, in Zakro and Shakro there is no dialogue. Emotions are expressed through honks and beeps.
4. "Treasure Island," 1988, Ukraine
This musical burlesque is a childhood classic for those who grew up in the final years of the USSR. The general plot faithfully follows Robert Louis Stevenson’s well-known novel, but the film also diverts wildly from the book. It is a farcical vaudeville, with singing, dancing and all sorts of high jinks.
Introduced by mug shots and typed dossiers, all the characters are grotesque exaggerations of themselves. The protagonist, innkeeper’s son Jim Hawkins, is a bespectacled, nasalizing geek; an improbable grin never comes off the toothy face of his friend and companion, Dr. Livesey; pirate Long John Silver, voiced by Soviet film star Armen Jigarkhanian, is quite intimidating, but not averse to some song and dance.
A real-life song-and-dance troupe provides collective commentary on developments like a Greek chorus. A few of these live-action gags come out of the blue, with songs about the merits of morning exercise and the detriment of smoking.
The film’s director, David Cherkasskiy, and cartoonist Radna Sakhatuyev, collaborated on other animated Soviet hits, such as "The Adventures of Captain Vrungel."
5. “Plasticine Crow,” 1981, Russia
We are back to Russia with one eccentric marvel that left Soviet film censors scratching their heads. “Plasticine Crow” is composed of three parts, but is best known for its last part (at the 4:00 mark) called “But maybe, but maybe . . .”
This is a fast-charging, stream-of-conscience style of clay animation, directed by Alexander Tatarsky. The narrators are trying to recall the fable “The Fox and the Crow,” but end up with a random, yet splendidly rhymed series of non-sequiturs.
“If memory serves, it was a crow (caw, caw, caw . . .), or maybe a dog (woof, woof, woof . . .) or maybe a cow (moo, moo, moo . . .), that got lucky one day. Someone mailed her a piece of cheese. We surmise about 200 grams or maybe 300 or maybe half a kilo.”
As the narrators sing, the characters and backgrounds transform swiftly. The crow turns into a dog, then a cow. A propos of absolutely nothing, a street sweeper, an elephant and an ostrich (“maybe evil, maybe not”) appear.
The film had trouble passing muster with Soviet censors as it was described as ideological nonsense. But the tale’s idea, as the narrators point out at the end, is pretty clear: “Don’t stand or jump, don’t sing or dance when construction is in progress or a heavy load is hanging above.”
Honorable Mentions from Russia: "The Golden Ring" (1979), "Once Upon a Dog" (1982), "The Secret of the Third Planet" (1981), "Flying Ship" (1979)
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