Animated Russian Fairy Tales

Yesterday, a friend of mine shared an image she saw on Claire Keane's Twitter that sparked her interest. If you're out of the loop, Claire Keane is the daughter of the legendary Disney Princess animator Glen Keane who did concept art for the Tangled movie and series. She tweeted a drawing from a short Russian movie that was released in 1952 called The Scarlet Flower. The movie is a Russian adaptation of "Beauty and the Beast." After watching this lovely work of art on YouTube, I found a link to another animated Russian fairy tale from 1968 called Rusalochka, which is the story of "The Little Mermaid." The artwork in Rusalochka completely blew me away. Every frame looks like something that you would find hanging on the walls of a fine art museum. It was refreshing to see such a unique perspective on my favorite fairy tale.

Both of these movies have a classic and otherworldly feel to them. The Scarlet Flower tells Charles Perrault's version of "Beauty and the Beast" if it had taken place in Russia. The "Beauty" character is named "Nastenka" in this adaptation, and she has long brown hair that is braided over her shoulder. The beast who denotes more of a demon-like appearance than an animal like most other versions. He presents Nastenka with fine Russian gowns and headdresses that she rejects in favor of her own simple dress. I have to admit this movie taught me a thing or two about Russian princess fashion because I never would have guessed the outfits that the beast dresses her in would be considered higher class than the one she was wearing. This version of the story also includes Nastenka's two sisters who got cut from the Disney version. One of them asks their father to bring her a magic mirror that makes the reflection of whoever gazes into it appear youthful and beautiful, which is an interesting item to include in a fairy tale. The fact that it does not interest Nastenka in the slightest supports my views about princesses and vanity.

A lot of the character art in The Scarlet Flower feels stiff. It gives off the impression of being rotoscoped because the movements feel to natural and uncanny for animation. I think the true beauty of this movie is the background art. The Russian architecture in the village and the beast's castle have a stunning amount of detail. All of the towers and stained glass windows shimmer as if they are made of magic and light. The iconic flower that Nastenka's father steals to bring to her as a gift has an ethereal quality to it and changes colors from red to white as it radiates large beams of light before it is picked. It's quite clear that it is an enchanted object without any narrative exposition. The overall look of the movie is like nothing I've seen before. It opened my eyes to new and different types of princess artwork.

Rusalochka, which is also available to watch on YouTube, looks like a moving medieval tapestry. It is definitely not rotoscoped, as the characters have many unnatural movements and often remain in profile view while they walk and talk. The underwater scenes are covered by a screen-like filter that separates it from the surface world. Outside of some unnecessary interjections of "Schoolhouse Rock" style animation that shows the story being narrated to a group of tourists, this short film is an incredible work of art. Like The Scarlet Flower, I've never seen anything like it before. It's reminiscent of looking at an old painting in a museum and watching it suddenly come to life. This version of "The Little Mermaid" incorporates the mermaid's iconic voice in a way that other versions do not. Her song has a bell-like opera quality to it with Rapunzel-style healing powers that save the prince's life.

Other unique touches that this adaptation adds to the story include a juxtaposition with the famous Denmark statue in addition to demonic organ music that plays whenever the little mermaid's rival princess enters the room. Her rival wears a black dress to contrast the mermaid's lighter features and moves in a staggered horror movie-like fashion which gives the feel of the Black Swan from the story of "Swan Lake." The short film ends similarly to the 1975 anime movie version of the tale, with the little mermaid sacrificing herself and turning to sea foam. Interestingly, her sisters offer her a magic bottle that will create a storm to sink the prince's ship and kill him in this version instead of a dagger to plunge into his heart. When the mermaid rejects this weapon fades away, it is possible that she becomes a Daughter of the Air like in the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale because the prince still hears her song after she vanishes. The only adaptation where this happens for certain, though, is in the book that I wrote, Of Land and Sea.

It is fascinating to see how different stories can become when they are told by another culture. Anime has become more or less mainstream in America, so everyone knows about Magical Girl princesses. Russian animation less mainstream, so I was very pleased to learn about these beautiful versions of two of my favorite fairy tales that were made over 50 years ago. The art styles of both of these short films were an eye-opening experience, as I am not used to seeing animation in this format. No matter what form they take, princesses will always win over our hearts with their kindness and beauty.


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