From the late 1960’s Soviet animation flourished, with some truly landmark work being created. Anthropomorphised characters met in expressionistic landscapes, establishing a combination of disparate arts that meshed perfectly in the limited animation style that the Soviets made their own. Each contrasting stylistic element would highlight the other’s strengths whilst commanding attention in its own right.
Witness the absolutely exquisite polar bear tale Umka, a gem from 1969. The minimalist icy landscapes are rendered beautifully and powerfully, framing the form and fluidity of the principle characters perfectly. The cub Umka, the mother bear and the nomadic Siberian boy ‘Chukchi’ are realised in an exemplary exercise of creative restraint. Nothing is wasted or overstated here, every element is to the point, and all the more effective because of it.
Today we can throw millions of dollars into multi-million polygon 3D landscapes and characters, we can heap-on the CG lighting and gloss – all to great visual effect. However, to evoke an equal or even greater emotional response from a restricted-palette backdrop of half a dozen flat triangle mountains is frankly amazing. The same (and more) can be said from the flat line-and-fill foreground characters. With the most minimal concession towards objective reality these figures convey a drama, emotion and poignancy that is still tangible and moreover relevant next to today’s animated media output. Incredible. Umka is a must-see for any fan of animation.
Unfortunately there were only three Umka films made – way too few if you ask me! The second Umka Looks for a Friend continued the original tale in 1970, whilst Elka in 2006 featured only a cameo appearance of ‘Umka’ as the titular character’s grandfather. Again, all treasures from the Soyuzmultfilm studios.
Incidentally, an insight into the studio’s brilliance may lie in the fact that most of the directors had also been animators earlier in their careers – meaning they knew their trade from the ground up. Some even continued to animate feature segments whilst in their directorial roles.
We’ve already taken a look at the late-1960’s puppet animation Cheburashka and the decidedly un-Disneyfied Winnie-the-Pooh (aka Vinnie Pukh), but other classics remain – a true embarrassment of riches sprung to life throughout this era. Where to start? Or, let alone stop.
Karlsson would be a good port-of-call in this tour of excellence. Based upon the Karlsson-on-the-Roof books by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren, the character appeared in two Soyuzmultfilm releases: Little Boy and Karlsson (aka Kid/Junior and Karlsson) and Karlsson Returns. The films were released in 1968 and 1970 respectively and featured a recurring theme in Soviet animation: that of the lost and isolated finding solace or adventure in a fantastical friendship. There’s probably miles of ink that could be written on the psychological aspect of this phenomenon which was heavily rooted in the era of Soviet Russia, but for now let’s just enjoy the show.
Again, the artwork is fabulous and draws (no pun intended) on a richness of artistic style and influence. The backgrounds have a rich ink-and-wash feel to them, full of linear detail and moody, subdued colour, whilst the characters are vivid by comparison. Finely delineated with detailed, crisp lines, they jump off the screen with their bold, cel-fill colouring.
The theme is similar to that of the ‘imaginary friend’, where a child’s mischievous, impish companion causes havoc out of view of the parents, leaving the youngster to take the blame. In this case the imp is the titular Karlsson who resembles a boastful, stout, ginger dwarf with a propellor jutting from his back.
This propellor is activated by the press of a button located on his stomach, and in an apparent reference to hyperactivity (!) he’s fueled by copious amounts of jam and other sweet-stuff, allowing him to fly about, even taking his young friend for a spin about town. Interestingly enough the cartoons were criticised by some ‘traditional’ educators and stick-in-the-mud parents who feared that Karlsson would encourage impressionable youngsters to disobey authority. What better recommendation could there be? Enjoy.