"Mikhail Baryshnikov's Stories From My Childhood," a collection of eight films screening in a six-hour marathon Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28, provides American viewers with a rare look at the work of some of the premier animators from the Soviet Union. These handsome shorts and featurettes (the longest films last only 60 minutes) offer new takes on familiar fairy tales, as well as an introduction to some lesser-known Russian stories.
The screening of several Disney shorts at the First International Film Festival in Moscow in 1935 led to the establishment of the Soyuzmultfilm Studio in Moscow the next year. After World War II, this large studio entered its most productive period, turning out hundreds of animated films that circulated throughout the former Eastern Bloc. The Soviet films occasionally turned up at international festivals but were rarely screened in the West--except for a few features that were cut into serials for American television during the late '50s and early '60s.
The Studio City-based company Films by Jove has spent more than $1.5 million digitally restoring the often badly damaged prints, adding new music and re-dubbing the films with major stars, including Amy Irving, Tim Curry, Sarah Jessica Parker, Kathleen Turner, Jessica Lange, Rob Lowe, Timothy Dalton and Gregory Hines. Baryshnikov served as an executive producer and helped round up the new voice talent.
Although the Disney influence is often clear, these films present a very different vision of what animated fairy tales should be: The storytelling is simple and straightforward, the animation fairly limited. The Soviet artists preserved the old pattern of events coming in threes (three challenges, three battles, three journeys), which their American counterparts usually streamlined.
Few of the secondary characters and sidekicks are developed to any degree, and there is relatively little comedy. Nor did the Soyuzmultfilm artists excel at character animation--the art of making a character move in ways that delineate its unique personality, a hallmark of American animation. The real glory of these films lies in the designs and art direction, which draw on Russian illustrators, folk art, designs for the Ballets Russes, etc., rather than the 19th century European illustrators who set the style for most American features.
In Lev Atamanov's version of "Beauty and the Beast," the Beast has none of the animal power or bombastic charm he displayed in the recent Disney film, but his palace is an opulent wonderland that blends Byzantine and Mogul architecture. The enchanted city in Ivan Ivanov-Vano's "The Prince, the Swan and the Czar Saltan" is a glittering fantasy of onion domes, flamboyant murals and rich tapestries. The forests that the hero traverses in Ivanov-Vano's "Ivan and His Magic Pony" (also known as "The Little Hunchbacked Horse") are filled with the birches and pines that figure in so many Russian novels.
Even familiar heroes and heroines look different: Beauty and Cinderella (in "Cinderella") wear brocade gowns with elaborate sleeves and stiff Russian headdresses; Ivan and the various princes are clad in long coats, tunics and high boots.
The result is an often enchanting sequence of visuals that delights the eye, even when the stories grow repetitious or the rhyming narratives begin to cloy.
* "Mikhail Baryshnikov's Stories From My Childhood" will air from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday on KCET-TV Channel 28. The series also will be shown June 12-14 on KOCE-TV Channel 50.