Magia Russica

There is something compelling to the animated image that allows it to transcend cultures and becomes timeless. Perhaps it lies in the ability to disregard the natural laws of the world when needed, anthropomorphizing otherwise inanimate objects or the freedom to move without regard to physics or biology. Or maybe it’s just the magic of the moving image. Think of the joy of introducing your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews to the antics of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, the nostalgia of Disney films, and the cleverness of the more recent players in the field. In fact the longest running American prime time TV show, The Simpsons, is animated. And yet, all these are largely western products. As any animation aficionado knows there is a thriving scene in Japan, major studios in the UK, and in fact all around the world unique forms of animation can be found. These diverse studios all offer something different than the sanitized American product, something that can only come from that culture. The former Soviet Union was one of them.

Like many other artistic fields, the Soviet socialist government sponsored the art form, and in 1936 the Soyuzmultfilm studio came into existence. The film “Magia Russica” delves into the history of the studio, interviewing several of its key players, from the early years to its eventual breakup with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and screening a choice selection of films the studio put out. Like other arts supported by the government, it was subjected to censorship, however as animation had the “stigma” of being an art form for children its impact was less and the studio managed to produce quite revolutionary films for its time and place. With budgets from the government, and access to movie theatres across the USSR, it managed to create a uniquely Russian form of animation, (not to mention drawing on the wealth of Russian literature and folktales). In fact the infamous Marxist dialectic is at play in director Roman Kachanov’s films, he was known for finding the sad notes in happy scenes, and a smile in sad scenes.

The title of the movie, “Magia Russica” is Latin for Russian magic. Similar to what was mentioned above, when soon to be legendary director Fyodor Khitruk first saw the films of Walt Disney he was blown away. He could not fathom how such pictures could come from a human hand and mind. To him it had to be a kind of magic. Khitruk eventually created his own magic in a version of the classic Winnie the Pooh, which held its own against the Disney version when the creators of the two met. In fact, even though he didn’t use the original drawings, he stayed true to the text, often bringing out aspects of the characters not found in the Disney version.

Besides Khitruk, one other notable director interviewed is Yuri Norstein. Norstetin came on board in the later days of Soyuzmultfilm, though he still managed to direct what is arguably one of the greatest works of animation, “Tale of Tales”. The film was awarded the title “The best Animation film of all times and nations” in the Arts Olympics at Los Angeles in 1983. At the time of filming, he was still active, along with other veterans of the studio, and we are treated to view their current work. While state support has disappeared, and with it the strict censorship, the freedom to create freely comes at a price, namely the automatic state financial support. But the animators continue on, harnessing the “Magia Russica”.

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