In the phenomenal “Krusty Gets Canceled” episode of The Simpsons (one of my personal favorites, even if you only consider Bette Midler’s superhuman strength), Krusty, having lost Itchy and Scratchy to a competitor, is forced to resort to Eastern Block animation, namely a strange communist derivative called Worker and Parsite. Needless to say, the kids don’t stick around.
The short is a pretty bold-faced homage to the Russian powerhouse of animation, Soyuzmultfilm, and its many imitators. Formed by Stalin as a reaction to the budding cultural phenomenon of Mickey Mouse, the state-run studio employed an approach eerily similar to a 5-year plan to build Soviet animation into a global power. And power it was. Even today, Soyuzmultfilm is the second largest animation studio in the world. All told, the studio has produced over 1,500 works in its 77 year history (1).
I’ve seen the studio’s work pop up a few times in the last few several weeks of programming on Network Awesome. Just a few days ago, NA ran the classic Soviet version of Winnie (er…Vinni) the Pooh. Sober, mild-mannered, and drained of much of the in-your-face adorableness of the American/Disney adaptation, it does a remarkable job of translating the A.A. Milne’s loveable and stoic bear to life. A sort of Anti-Disney, the studio’s work seems to consistently echo the communist ideal, embracing the human in the fanciful, and the populist in the heroic.
Perhaps even more significant for the studio, however, is its reputation for experiment and the avant-garde. With the studio defended from the rigors of free-market capitalism, animators were given a relatively open environment to create, yielding not only classic works like those previously mentioned, or the beloved Cheburashka (who has been appropriated as the mascot for the Russian Olympic team), but also a range of experimental films running the gamut of approaches, from Claymation and stop-motion to puppetry (2).
For a children’s film, The Mystery of the Third Planet is planted firmly at this crossroads. It was directed by famed screenwriter Roman Kachanov, who helmed both the popular Cheburashka trilogy, as well as the award-winning (and much more artistically minded) The Heron and the Crane. Based on a popular series of children’s books by writer Kir Bulyachev, Third Planet follows a young, confident girl named Alice and her astronaut/scientist father on an intergalactic quest to stop the mass extermination of an adorable species of space-birds with the ability to talk (3).
The film is... obtuse. To say the least. Occasionally lacking contextual clues, and with unbelievably bad subtitle translations, there are definitely some moments when you find yourself staring at the screen with your face screwed up in bewilderment. Characters flit in and out without much of an introduction, and we’re left to Google the source material so that we have full idea what’s going on. Add in an unbelievably twisted soundtrack of European funk, synthesizer soundscapes and classical strings, and you've pretty much got the idea. The strangeness is only magnified by the comical, herky-jerky movements of the occasional robot or the handful of weird space creatures that keep popping up.
What’s more, there’s a strand of neutrality running through the protagonists of the film that occasionally comes off as a bit bizarre. Not overly heroic or nefarious, they are instead predominantly neutral, everyday citizens going about their roles, drawn into a conflict between the grand heroics of the Two Captains (notably pioneers of the Russian space race) and the bird genocide of our villains. Their action aligns them with the good of the populace, service in order that the people of Russia can all enjoy these effusive birds. The heroic nature is almost otherworldly here, appearing Deus Ex Machina and all from a buried space cruiser, unearthed like some forgotten relic to save the common man in his hour of need. Communist spirit and how!
There’s also the recurring flickers of schadenfreude and bold-faced pessimism that marks these films as distinctly Russian. I don’t think I’ve ever found myself more entertained by a character’s chronic depression than Thunderzeka’s (the enormous, multi-armed and eagle-eyed space alien scholar), and Captain Green’s sad-faced mope is the stuff of legends. Turning them into caricatures, Third Planet drives
But it’s not bad children’s material in the slightest, comparable in fact to an episode of Scooby-Doo, or any other mystery solving kids program. At the unmasking of the culprit, you almost have to resist the urge to shout out “…if it wasn’t you for you blasted kids” at my computer screen.
Like any culture, the children’s films of Soviet Russia are wholly ensconced in the ethos of its motherland. The shading of the plot with this foreign perspective (particularly one we were all but withheld from for so many years), makes for some peculiar viewing, but in the end, works like the Mystery of the Third Planet and Vinni Pooh are good for their escapsim, their raw power of invention imagination, and the way they bring children in their world.
Soyuzmultfilm is now 77 years old, and embroiled in a struggle for its life. With the collapse of the U.S.S.R., its source of funding and protection dried up, and its financial standing still remains uncertain. Even so, the art and its viewing is alive and well in Russia, with 20% of all box office sales going to animated films, and Russian films continually doing well against globo-film behemoths like Kung Fu Panda (1). And rightly so: the animated works of Russia represent a separate fantasy entirely from that of the American Dream. It’s one that has for years proclaimed the strength of the Motherland, of the people, striving against hardship, as opposed to the hero against the odds. From this grounding sprang Soyuzmultfilm, a studio by and for the people. One can only hope it doesn’t perish from this earth.