I’m still entrenched inside the 1960’s and 70’s Soviet animation renaissance when Khrushchev’s famous thaw loosened the State’s reins on artistic creativity. There is so much to discuss here.
By this time, techniques had been refined and expanded, accepted production methods and inspirations had become less insular, with the art blossoming as a result. Yes, there were also some definite influences from the West via Disney and the techniques of limited animation as championed by UPA studios, but some perspective is required.
It may sound like an overnight transformation, but it is worth mentioning that UPA had been in existence since the 1940’s and, arguably, the roots of limited animation were established in the 1920’s with the mirroring and repetition of character animation sequences as well as the re-using of background settings. Elements of this technique are indeed inherent in the art itself.
In spite of external influences it is equally clear that Russian animators had their own style and artistry coupled with an immediate ease in combining mixed methodology. The results were often more hybrid than Western counterparts in that whatever worked; worked – without the restrictions of a single ‘pure’ style. Of course, the combination of diverse techniques (the naive-art backgrounds and delineated, cel-filled characters in Vinnie Pukh for example) created new styles. Exciting times, then.
Russian animators could also embrace a single technique wholesale of course, which brings us to another childhood-shaping phenomena; the pure cel classic: Nu, Pogodi!, or Well, Just You Wait! – again created by Soyuzmultfilm.
The principal figures behind this cultural landmark (that still survives as such) were the script-writers Arkadiy Khait, Felix Kamov and Alexander Kurlandsky, along with director Vyacheslav Kotenochkin. The progressing storyline is based upon a simple theme that is familiar to fans of Tom and Jerry and Chuck Jones’ Wile-E-Coyote / Road Runner double-act. Nu, Pogodi! concerns an ongoing chase saga played out between an elusive hare and a hapless wolf. As with the Road Runner cartoons, the antagonist is the real hero. We like the road runner but we love the coyote.
Here, we’re really rooting for the lanky, unkempt, semi-delinquent wolf, prone to casual vandalism, trademark loud bell-bottoms and frequent cigarettes. He’s an example of great character design, that still remains iconic thanks to his (now) dreadful ’70’s clothes, ruined quiff, lack of ‘PC’ safety-net and a beer gut poking out from under his vest that enables him to be both fat and thin at the same time! The series title, in case you were wondering is what the (nameless) wolf calls out in frustration every time his machinations are thwarted (and of course that’s plenty).
By contrast, the hare character is little more than a foil for the wolf’s antics, arguably underdeveloped by comparison and decidedly Enid Blyton in style. It’s as if we were supposed to boo the wolf and cheer the exemplary ‘good-guy’ hare – but something went ‘wrong’ (or ‘right’) in the execution. In defining all the vices and excesses of the antagonist, the studio fleshed out the wolf character, whilst leaving the ‘pure’ hare half-baked and less interesting as a result.
Music is a strong and varied aspect of the show, with popular classics or chart and dance music of the era featured. Songs were also custom written or adapted versions of established favourites used to accompany the on-screen antics. In an acrobatic circus scene, the line ‘what goes up must come down’, from Spinning Wheel by Blood, Sweat and Tears is referenced in instrumental form for instance.
In contrast to episodes of Tom and Jerry and Wile-E-Coyote, the Nu, Pogodi! world is populated by an extensive supporting cast of anthropomorphised animal extras, all to be casually victimised by the wolf, to thwart his efforts or to assist the hare in his inevitable escapes.
The cartoon took Russia and Eastern Europe by storm, quickly becoming a sensation that is fondly remembered -and still enjoyed- today. Interestingly, peers of the director looked down upon the series as ‘low-rent’ next to the relatively high-brow art of ‘serious’ animation. This direction had however been a conscious decision on the part of director Kotenochkin, whose dislike of the conceits and pretensions of his fellows had motivated him to produce a direct, deliberately simplistic caper, with no subtext or aspirations of grandeur. It was entertainment, pure and simple.
However, as with other popular forms of entertainment that ‘take-off’ in a big way, the temptation is to read too much into them and over-analyse the content. (I’ve been doing just that here!). So in spite of his aforementioned intentions, and with some comedic irony, Kotenochkin found himself in the position of having to counter claims that Nu, Pogodi! was in fact an allegory for the struggle between the working class and the intelligentsia! – represented by the wolf and the hare, respectively.
Good grief, we can imagine his chagrin; sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Freud probably didn’t say.