Whilst the 1960’s may not have been exactly swinging behind the Iron Curtain, there is evidence that animators were at least stepping semi-rigidly from side to side, in time with the rhythm of change. Well, as much as the powers-that-were would allow, and as much as the creators felt comfortable with, easing their way out from under the shadows of prior decades.
Khitruk’s The Story of a Crime had thrown open the left-field, and with its acceptance had granted animators huge creative license to employ diverse expressionistic style and flourish, miles away from the constraints of rotoscoped Éclair. The minimalist style of limited animation was also far removed from Disney’s populist tropes, and flew stubbornly in the face of the global commercial mainstream.
This stance is illustrated particularly by the Russian version of Winnie the Pooh, which in 1969 cocked a creative snook at Disney’s treatment, released 3 years earlier: Winnie The Pooh and The Honey Tree and, of course, Winnie The Pooh and The Blustery Day, released in 1968.
Whereas Disney’s Pooh character was rounded, comfortable, slow and bumbling – all in the extreme; his Russian namesake translated into a quicker-witted chatterbox and something of an absurdist ponderer, with his own surrealist slant on the world. The characterisation is that of a squat, though bulky brown bear – decidedly animalistic with clearly delineated claws on display throughout. Very un-Disney.
The backgrounds are an explosion of naive-art and colour, drawn in a brisk, textured, crayon-like style; instantly contrasting and separating from the solid outline-and-fill cel work of the principle players. The Russian animators also play fast and loose with the constraints of perspective; acknowledging and utilising it for effect only when desired, whereas Disney sets out to create a rigid virtual reality (notwithstanding the animated page sequences), with uniform cel rendering and a simulated perspective treatment inherent in the methodology.
No flies on Disney’s animators – while I’ve always admired their technical skill, the Russian take does seem a little freer in its realisation however, with stylisation extending to Pooh’s feet being clearly detached from the body, padding around minus legs! Also, the age-appeal seems decidedly broader compared to Disney’s wearing comfort-at-all-costs approach.
Decidedly un-comfortable for the era was Andrei Khrzhanovsky’s The Glass Harmonica (1969) which was as different to the Russian Pooh as it in turn was to Disney. Again, here is a variation on the limited animation methodology, but this time the feature utilises a distinctive painterly style that draws on surrealism, cartoon illustration and the oils of the old masters. That’s quite a mix.
Bizarre, grotesque characters dwell, stupefied in a grim urban environment under the stern watchfulness of a suited authoritarian figure. Then the unnamed central character arrives as a magical wandering bard to render everything and everyone free and beautiful with the tones of his crystalline instrument (not a mouth-organ). The Man steps in and drudgery follows. No wonder that it was the first animated film to receive an official ban within the Soviet Union. A deliberate poke at the status quo and a whole leap too far for the system that it so obviously referenced.
The fact that a work such as this could exist, whether banned or not is an indication of how things had changed since the darkest excesses of the early communist era. The air of liberation was enough for a new generation of animators to squeeze through the carefully monitored door of official approval – or at least allowance. And they did.
More next time.
(Photo by Anton Ruiter)