Ura! Russian Animation!

Anyone who knows me knows just how much I love Russian film. Actually, they probably don’t have a precise idea, but I do really, really, really love Russian cinema, particularly of the Soviet era. During the Communist rule, when many radical pieces of work were shelved or outright destroyed (one of my favorite films, the anti-anti-Semitic Komissar, was banned upon its release in 1967, and never saw the light of day again for twenty years), it seems that a lot of filmmakers took refuge in animation.

Of course, Russian animation had existed since the very beginnings of cinema itself. However, after the end of Stalin’s rule and the start of Nikita Khruschev’s push toward the country’s cultural renewal, a more distinct, revolutionary approach to animation began to develop. Visually, this approach is a bit of a hybrid, taking a great deal of influence from Expressionism paintings and avant-garde works, as well as popular animated works from further West. Thematically, they have both feet firmly planted in political and social commentary, usually buried beneath their minimalist, simple, often silly plot concepts.

More than anything, I love how unique they all seem to be. One couldn’t effectively lump the aesthetics of Russian animation into one category, since there aren’t very many that look alike. Their mood ranges from comedic, to anarchistic, to poetic. These works of art are like nothing else I’ve seen before, and it’s a shame they seem to go under-appreciated among film-lovers. Here are ten short films that I absolutely love; my own kind of Russian Animation 101.

(Note: The English titles are rough translations, so I’ve included the original Russian titles below. Also, since I do not know Russian, I don’t exactly know how well-translated some of these videos’ subtitles are. Despite this, I do think they are all rather enjoyable, nevertheless!)

1) “Winnie the Pooh and a Busy Day” (1972) – dir. Fyodor Khitruk
Original title: Vinni-Pukh i den zabot

I’ll be starting off this selection with one of the three shorts put out by Fyodor Khitruk, featuring Vinni Pukh, one of my all-time favorite animated characters. Obviously, this is the Russian spin-off of the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoon series (itself adapted from A.A. Milne’s classic work of literature). Personally, I always preferred the Russian versions of the stories. Where Disney’s portrayals are cute and cuddly, Khitruk is presented with a keen sense of wit and cynical sarcasm. Three of these shorts were released, and while I love them all (and desperately wish there were many more), Winnie the Pooh and the Busy Day remains my personal favorite, as the Russian version of Eeyore is also much more adorable.

Watch it in two parts! Part 1, Part 2

2) “Passion of Spies” (1967) – dir. Efim Gamburg
Original title: Shpionskie strasti

Another one of my favorites. This is an amazingly clever parody of Western spy and noir films, with an animation style that, to me, resembles a hybrid of Max Fleischer cartoons and the characters Boris and Natasha of the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons. In ways, it even seems Dr. Strangelove-esque. It’s fast, funny, dark, and even a bit risqué. Also, the art direction is incredible!

Watch it in two parts! Part 1, Part 2

3) “Ballerina on a Boat” (1969) – dir. Lev Atamanov
Original title: Balerina na korable

Ballerina on a Boat is about a ship’s crew who becomes entranced by the appearance of a beautiful dancer. There are some really interesting choices made in animation here. While most of the characters are blocky and clumsy-looking, the ballerina, in her presence and movements, stands out in ethereal grace. Even some of the background shading is rather lovely. I find this short very beautiful throughout, with some amazing color schemes and atmospheric artistic depictions.

Watch it here!

4) “Man in a Frame” (1966) – dir. Fyodor Khitruk
Original title: Chelovek v ramke

Fyodor Khitruk is probably my single most favorite Russian animator, at least for his shorts of the 60’s and 70’s. While I do enjoy the whimsical nature of his Vinni Pukh shorts (as seen above), I do believe his masterpiece is Man in a FrameThe concept, on the surface, is a bit silly, as it is a surrealistic depiction of a nameless man and his ventures from one frame to the next. In actuality, however it is a biting satire of the bureaucratic hierarchy. The rise to the top is accompanied by pangs of weakness and temptations that are central to our human essence, yet vital to eventual downfall. Khitruk, in his buried political and social commentary, is fiercely critical of this phenomenon, and his artistic depiction of this is profoundly effective. Also, the animation to this short is very, very cool, merging a hybridity of styles and combining animation with still images to really set the mood.

Watch it here!

5) “Story of One Crime” (1962) – dir. Fyodor Khitruk
Original title: Istoriya odnogo prestupleniya

Another short gem from Khitruk, this one about a man who commits a murder. The film, throughout, depicts the 24 hours leading up to the crime, enlightening viewers on how an everyman could end up doing such a thing. The implication here is that it is the noisiness of everyday life that causes the man to grow disconnected and experience a slight, yet serious, lapse of judgment. The most impressive parts about this film, I think, are the moments when Khitruk represents multiple fields of action happening simultaneously within a single frame (as exemplified in the above still).

Watch it here!

6) “Glass Harmonica” (1968) – dir. Andrey Khrzhanovskiy
Original title: Steklyannaya garmonika

Of the list of talented animators I have presented here, Khrzhanovskiy may be the most political. His most charged piece is granted in the form of Glass Harmonica, a surreal, occasionally grotesque film that was quite controversial for its time. Indeed, its purely visual, relatively radical style is a bit hard to follow, but the emotion and chaos that emerges from such images is noteworthy. It is, once again, a critique of bureaucracy, claiming that only destruction could come from a society that places such high value on money.

Watch it here!

7) “Hedgehog in the Fog” (1975) – dir. Yuriy Norshteyn
Original title: Yozhik v tumane

Among discussions of Russian animation – and animation in general – Norshteyn’s beautiful Hedgehog in the Fog is bound to come up. This is a truly remarkable film, particularly for its art direction. One could practically feel the coldness coming out from behind the screen. It’s absolutely amazing how this was from the 70’s, as it seems so very modern. It’s dark, cute, scary, funny, and quirky, all at once. In short, this film is awesome – even Björk & Michel Gondry agree!

Watch it here!

8) “Film, film, film” (1970) – dir. Fyodor Khitruk
Original title: Фильм, фильм, фильм

Khitruk is a bloody genius. Film, film, film is a comical depiction of the details and (mostly) distresses that occur within the production of a film. It’s fun, funny, and a must-see for anyone who loves movies.

Watch it here!

9) “There Lived Kozyavin” (1966) – dir. Andrey Khrzhanovskiy
Original title: Zhil-byl Kozyavin

Khrzhanovskiy’s tinge of socio-political dissent can once again be see in There Lived Kozyavin. In essence, it’s about a working-class man, who is told by his boss to walk in one direction and takes it literally – meaning, he intends on walking this exact line forever, avoiding obstacles and troubling situations in his path. Much like The Glass Harmonica, the artwork in this film is heavily influenced by surreal paintings, becoming more and more otherworldly as time progresses. This, personally, isn’t one of my favorites, but it is certainly worthwhile and an important contribution to Russian cinema.

Watch it here!

10) “Mountain of Dinosaurs” (1967) – dir. Rasa Strautmane
Original title: Gora dinozavrov

My, oh, my. Despite (or partially due to) its lovely animation, this film really does pack a punch. I know the ending certainly gets me every time.

Watch it here!

BONUS! Nu, pogodi! (1969-2006)

From what I have been told, there isn’t in existence a Russian person who grew up in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s and isn’t familiar with Nu, pogodi! Essentially, it’s the Russian take on the similarly anthropomorphic characters of Tom & Jerry; Jerry, in this case, is an adorable rabbit, and Tom is the smoking, artistic hooligan of a wolf. What sets this series apart from the Western animation, however, is the notable use of popular Russian music and pop culture references, which have become a staple of each episode. A lot of the humor is derived from classic slapstick troupes and it is occasionally witty. While it isn’t quite as revolutionary, the series is still very delightful and – like the others I have listed – a wonderful, unique, important component of the field of Russian and Soviet animation (which I love so, so much).

Watch the first episode here!

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6 Responses to Ura! Russian Animation!

  1. ferzkiwi says:

    My dream is to study in Russia for I totally fell in love with Yuri norstein animation! I’m so new to russian animation and it’s seem that your blog is a great place for me to start 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

    • Lyzette says:

      This is such an awesome comment! I don’t know how you came across my blog, but I’m really glad you did! My love for Russian animation started about two years ago. It’s just such a vibrant, unique artform; unlike anything else in the world. Thank you for reading and for the nice compliment!! 🙂

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  3. I love animation myself. I hate it when people keep reminding “animation is a medium and not a genre”, the animation is actually much more than that. Russian animation has long been very under-appreciated and it’s hard for me too to explore their films, so your post is very valuable (just look at the variety of styles they have for those shorts)

    Aside form Russian animation, I also really admire the works from the National Film Board of Canada, such innovative animation.

    I wish we had History of Animation class in my uni, so I would be the first one in line. ^^

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