Friday, July 17, 2015

The Humpbacked Horse directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano

The Humpbacked Horse
Soviet Union (Russian), 1947
57 min, animation, children's, folktale, fantasy
Directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano

When Ivan's brothers assign him to watch for the creature that is destroying the crops, he discovers that the culprit is a magical white horse with a flowing mane. He climbs on her back, and in exchange for her freedom the horse gives him two beautiful black stallions and a small humpbacked pony.

This pony is magical, intelligent, and can talk. Ivan sells the magnificent stallions to the tsar. When no one else can manage the beautiful, wild horses, the tsar hires Ivan to take care of them - replacing the man who used to have that job.  But when the previous groom whispers terrible rumors into the tsar's ear, Ivan is sent on fantastic quests: to capture a fire bird, to bring back a tsar-maid, and to retrieve the tsar-maid's ring from the bottom of the ocean. He accomplishes each one with the help of his magical humpbacked horse.

When the tsar-maid refuses the tsar's offer of marriage due to his advanced age, the tsar begs her to reconsider. She tells him that if he bathes in three cauldrons, one full of boiling milk, one of boiling water, and one of cold water, consecutively, he will grow young and handsome again and she will marry him. Fearing for his own life, the tsar orders Ivan to try this task first. He once again succeeds thanks to his friend the magical horse, and ends up marrying the tsar-maid himself.

This is the first full-length animated feature to be made in the Soviet Union. Based on a famous poem originally published in 1834, all of the lines are in verse. The animation and music are gorgeous, depicting a whimsical version of Russian peasant life. The same studio released another version of the film in 1975. This review only considers the original 1947 version.

Soviet postage stamp based on the film, 1988

Serfs and Nobility

The original poem "The Humpbacked Horse" was published in the 1830s, when the tsar held absolute control over the Russian government. Because of some major subversive aspects of the work, especially the foolish depiction of the tsar, the poem was heavily censored for the first 20 years after its publication. Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that this critique of the pre-Communist feudal system was made into the first Soviet animated film.

Accordingly, subtle and not-so-subtle critiques of the feudal system appear throughout this film. For example, most of the background characters are members of the peasant classes. Their depiction is one of simple, happy people, going about their everyday business. The market day scene, where the tsar purchases Ivan's horses, is full of peasants dancing and singing. Although they are relatively poor, they are happy and do not seem to need or want more than they already have.

The tsar, on the other hand, is always dissatisfied with what he has, even though he has more than anybody else. He is always suspicious that others are keeping things away from him, which are just confirmed by the previous groom's whispers about Ivan's fire-bird feather, or his ability to capture the most beautiful woman in the world and bring her back for the tsar. The ruler also has a complete disregard for other people; on a whim, he issues unreasonable demands that make even his best subjects (like Ivan) suffer. And because of his rank, others must bow to these wishes whether they are reasonable or not. 

It is easy to see the appeal of this story for the Soviet government. In the end, the peasant Ivan wins through the help of his magical horse. The tsar is defeated, his enemy the former groom gets what's coming to him, and Ivan ends up magically transformed into a tall, handsome man who finally gets the girl. But what does it mean that Ivan wins? Does he become the new tsar and abuse his power in the same way that the tsar did? Or does he initiate a new reign of peace and prosperity for the kingdom? 

Folk/Fairy Tales 

As is often the case in fairy tales, the one major female character, the tsar-maiden, is thoroughly objectified. She is literally captured (in a simple trap like an animal!) and brought back to the tsar to do with as he likes. Although she refuses to marry the old tsar, he keeps insisting. With no other choice, she gives him ridiculous tasks to complete, which of course the tsar makes Ivan do on his behalf. When Ivan completes those tasks, it is he who wins the fair maiden's hand in marriage. She is an object, a prize to be won, just like the fire bird Ivan brings back for the tsar to keep in a cage. While not unsurprising, this patriarchal depiction was disappointing.

Something that my husband noticed is that God, or any divine being, does not feature in this story at all. It seems that the magical beings and creatures are native to this fairy-tale version of Russia, and that a deity is not needed to explain them.

The one exception is a whale who is being punished by God for an unknown crime. He is captured and literally domesticated - there is a whole village living on his back - without being informed of what he did to deserve such treatment. Luckily, Ivan's magical horse knows what the crime was and they manage to set the whale free. But it is interesting that the one time a deity is mentioned, he is shown to be as fickle and intractable as the tsar. Both of the higher authorities abuse their power.

As a film, "The Humpbacked Horse" is highly watchable, with gorgeous animation and music. I would even say that, setting the story aside, the visuals are enough to merit a viewing. Highly recommended for everyone who is interested in seeing whimsical depictions of Russian peasant life. Which should be everyone. :P  

You can watch The Humpbacked Horse with English subtitles online at Dailymotion (part 1 and part 2). 

Further Reading

"Inside the Rainbow: how Soviet Russia tried to reinvent fairytales" by Marina Lewycka from the Financial Times
"Not just for the kids: The 5 best-loved Soviet animations" by Elena Korenevskaya from Russia Beyond the Headlines

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