Russia in Classic Film Blogathon: Peter and the Wolf (1946)

This post is my first contribution to the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon.

I have always wanted to sit down and define what to me were the “Great Stories.” By great stories what I mean is those stories where I can watch many different adaptations of it without tiring. This particular story, like many that would be on that as of yet un-drafted list, is one I’ve enjoyed since childhood. This 1946 Disney produced version is the one I first saw.

Since discovering and re-discovering it several times over I have since sought out other versions of the story, including: A ballet produced by the Royal Ballet School; a live action/animation hybrid with characterizations by Chuck Jones and a Soviet stop-motion animation film from the ‘50s (this version will soon be featured on a Short Film Saturday post. As well as crafting my own version for the stage for young actors and musicians to perform.

What I believe draws many to this story is, of course, Prokofiev’s music, but also the inherent humor many have found to counterbalance the true scares the plot points can offer.

Peter and the Wolf (1946)

Peter and the Wolf (1946, Disney)

For the purposes of this blogathon, and to mesh with my March to Disney theme, I will focus solely on Disney’s 1946 version created for inclusion in the anthology film Make Mine Music. This version was also later siphoned off as its own short and released on video (once with the original Sterling Holloway narration, and one time now) and it also accompanied a theatrical re-release of Fantasia, which is rather a perfect pair.

Make Mine Music, I recently discovered is yet another title that has been subject to Disney’s self-censorship having lost an entire segment in all subsequent releases due to concerns over racial insensitivity. However, that is but a compelling footnote here. What compels here is the treatment of Peter and the Wolf within the longer piece.

It’s interesting to consider that this short film was fashioned just 10 years after Prokofiev’s opus debuted, a debut he himself cited as being inauspicious. So in many ways this animation truly is largely responsible for popularizing and immortalizing the piece; at least in the west. Like many lasting works it wasn’t an instant success.

Much like Disney did with the Seven Dwarfs (who had no names in Grimm’s version) he named Peter’s animal friends (Sasha – Bird; Sonja – Duck and Ivan – Cat) and the hunters were also named (Misha, Yasha and Vladimir).

I have written extensively on divorcing oneself from a prior incarnation of a narrative when watching the film. However, when discussing different versions of a work noting changes matters. The introduction of the representative instruments remains, yet the situation with the Duck’s fate is slightly changed from the original.

Peter and the Wolf (1946, Disney)

The short balances real scares like the wolf’s appearance in general, his threatening the duck and other’s are balanced with humorous touches, like Peter’s pop-gun, pantomime action and voice-over dialogue. This follows through to the ending with Peter’s presumed fate and his heroic reveal.

It truly is a fairy tale set to music that also includes some of Disney’s didactic proclivities by having signs in Cyrillic then dissolve to translated versions after being misunderstood. This helps indicate to even the youngest audience members that the story is foreign in origin, but allows them to relate to it through the narrative storytelling technique.

The main action sequence of the film is very well and dramatically rendered. Furthermore, at 13 minutes there’s a more grandiose sprawl to this tale than standard six-to-eight minute shorts allow. Yet, with the musical score usually clocking in around 25 minutes in length it moves more briskly apace than that. Add to that the typical deep, intricate backgrounds, and fanciful setting that Disney can create, and you get a world that is fully realized and dimensional. A narrative landscape that seems much larger than indicated and seems to belie the modesty of budget likely implemented (I hypothesize somewhere between pre-War opulence and wartime belt-tightening).

It’s a rendition that has stood the test of time, and like much classic animation, has come to define pieces of classical music in the minds of those who know it. Whether individually or as part of the underrated Make Mine Music it’s a short that is worth knowing whether you’re a Disney enthusiast or not.



Once Upon a Time in the 80s: The Neverending Story (Part 12 of 17)

Note: This piece contains in depth story analysis. It is not recommended reading if you’ve not seen the film.

Five Films

We’ve taken a very broad look at the 80s. Now I want to take a closer look at five films that in their own unique way captured a different part of the 80s flavor. In my opinion, they are at least great pieces of entertainment, and on some level great films. One film The Neverending Story I rediscovered as an adult; one, Parenthood, I saw as a child, the other three I saw for a first time as a mature viewer. Each of them capture the character and magic of the 80s in their visuals, plot and themes and in such a different way I’ve included them all here:

The Neverending Story

The Neverending Story (1984, Warner Bros.)

This is a film adapted from a book, which was a phenomenon written by German children’s author Michael Ende. It was produced entirely in Germany with an English-speaking cast thus the official title of the film is Die Unendliche Geschichte. The film was directed by Wolfgang Petersen. This was, in fact, his follow up to Das Boot. This is a film I watched anew after many years of not having seen it anywhere. I first saw this when I was in the fourth grade. In fact, it was screened to us before we went on a field trip to see the sequel. The next time I saw this film again was a year or two ago on cable (as of this writing). I was absolutely amazed by the sheer fantasy and wonder of this film. The affect this film has is timeless and perhaps it’s even more profound now.

The tale is about a boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver), this name does carry symbolism as it is similar to bastion, and our protagonist lives in a dream-world. Ironically, he will visit a world of fantasy and there will be created another great symbiosis of the 80s. The difference between adults and children is also drawn out right away in this film. His father (Gerald McCraney) yells at him because he was drawing horses in class. Bastian corrects him and says they were Unicorns and his father doesn’t understand what he said. This is fundamental dichotomy: Adults lose their imagination and prefer pragmatism. 

We see the plight that makes Bastian escape to his fantasy world when three bullies accost him. As fate would have it, he stumbles into a book store run by Mr. Koreander (Thomas Hill). Barret Oliver was a young actor of some note in the 1980s, he was no Henry Thomas but he had some good performances, this one was not especially convincing. It is especially weak when he challenges Koreander saying he does read. This meeting introduces one of the many towering concepts these ideas are amazing on their own but we find them all here in one gem of a film. These concepts are: 1) A story that has no end, 2) Fantasia is the world of human fantasy and has no borders, 3) Fantasia is starting to die because people have begun to lose hope, 4) The Nothing, 5) The reader is actually part of the story. 

The Neverending Story (1984, Warner Bros.)

Great concepts are essential to a good fantasy and here we have it five great ones. I will expound on them now. Obviously the narrative within cinematic context must end but the idea of this book Bastian finds doesn’t is that everyone who reads it forms the story. All the imaginations of the world form their universe; it’s great. The first example of the great production design is the book that contains The Neverending Story. It has on its cover two snakes that are eating each other which give us an alternate symbol for eternity. 

The story he experiences (isn’t that what we do with the very best stories, experience them, we also don’t want them to end) takes place in Fantasia which is the world that is created by the dreams of human beings. What’s great is that there is an inference that we will identify with this story because everyone who reads this book will shape the tale and they are ultimately the ones who will save Fantasia. 

All this talk of saving Fantasia leads me to the next great idea. The Nothing is literally nothing, the film explains this right away “A hole would be something no it was, nothing,” the Rock Biter says. The Nothing has come about because people have started to lose hope and have stopped dreaming. “And people who had lost hope are easy to control.” The reader, Bastian, must complete the story such that Fantasia can be saved. Thus, we can also infer a grander vision that every time someone some one stops dreaming part of Fantasia dies. Its fate is always in the balance.

The Neverending Story (1984, Warner Bros.)

The reader’s active participation in the story is also a great touch. Everyone at one point or another wanted to shape the story they were reading. This is a great piece of fantasy and in this manner the film has two heroes: Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who goes on a classic fantastical quest to try and save the Childlike Empress, whose death would end Fantasia; and Bastian, who manages to recreate Fantasia even when there was only a speck of sand left just by the power of his imagination! This also creates another bookish film a lá The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh which is less a cinematic adaptation but embracing of two separate art forms. 

The flow of this story is unbelievably smooth and quick. While it’s a little over 90 minutes long a bad or poorly paced 90 minute film can feel like it’s two hours long or more. We are introduced to the idea of the nothing by an assorted cast of fantastic creatures: a night-hob, a racing snail and a Rock Biter, a rock-formed creature that eats rocks. They travel to the Ivory Tower, this is one of the magnificently designed sets of the film, even though this first shot is probably just a matte painting it is just fantastic. Then there are The Swamps of Sadness, Engyebook’s Hut and the Ivory Tower itself are as other examples of fantastic sets made for this film. At the Tower news of the Empress’s illness and its connection to the Nothing are given and a brave warrior is called to go on a quest to find the one who can defeat the nothing, one who lives beyond the boundaries of Fantasia.

Atreyu proves he’s the one who’s meant to go on this quest; Noah Hathaway had a great fantastical accent which seems as if it was an amalgam of British and Australian speech patterns. Bastian immediately identifies with Atreyu and we identify with both of them in turn. It seems the amount of symbiotic connections this film makes is endless. The two snakes turn out to be the AURYN, a magical amulet that protects the wearer. Yet another classic fantasy element; it’s such mishmash and yet the story itself is so much more unique than most 80s fantasy like Legend, which was purposefully a combination many fantasy epics.

The Neverending Story (1984, Warner Bros.)

Atreyu journeys through the Swamps of Sadness where if you let the sadness that emanates from the place get to you, you will sink into the mud and die. He is brave and makes it but his horse Artax dies. This is a huge event not only in the film’s dramatic context but production-wise this is a bold move in a kid’s movie where only someone like Disney usually had the guts to do something like that. He then encounters Morla the Ancient One. The dialogue in this scene is great. Morla keeps referring to itself as “we” and Atreyu asks “Are there more than one of you.” The response “We haven’t talked to anyone in so long. So we started to talking to ourselves.” Morla later starts sneezing because it’s literally allergic to youth.

He’s told he must go to see the Southern Oracle, which is more than 10,000 miles away. As Atreyu walks dejected through the swamp, we see class at Bastian’s school is no longer in session but he stays to continue reading because he can’t put the book down. Atreyu is taken most of the way by Falkor a full animatronic luck-dragon that was 43-feet in length. There Atreyu meets Engyebook and Urgl an old couple who fight incessantly. Engyebook is a scientist and does everything experimentally and never takes a chance in his life. There are two gates you must pass before reach the Oracle are giant twin sphinxes, these are another pair of great symbolic moments. The premise of the first gate is that anyone who doesn’t feel their own worth is destroyed by the gate. Beams shoot out of the sphinxes eyes and kill the unworthy. We see a man in armor get burned. This film stayed PG oddly enough despite the fact that we see his face burnt to a crisp and the statues have large exposed breasts. Atreyu makes it through after some trepidation and the second gate is the magic mirror gate where he must come face to face with his true self and who does he see in the mirror but Bastian. This is the second time Bastian is given a hint that the people in the story know of him. The third time the Empress pleads outright with him telling him every place Bastian had followed Atreyu and pleads for a name.

This film has developed quite a cult following although it had quite a good run at the box-office. There are many websites online dedicated both to the film and the novel. The seemingly great mystery of the film is what Bastian’s mother’s name is because this is the Empresses new name. He yells it out the window during a storm and it seems purposely drowned out. On the DVD there is no subtitle to tell us what he says even when you have the feature on. This is one of Petersen’s greatest touches. It could be any kid’s mother’s name, even though if you listen carefully you can decipher it (hint: it’s the same thing he says in the book.). His best work was in adapting the novel to film. He didn’t try to adapt the whole thing, but saw a definite point where the novel stops telling one story and starts telling another. At page 180 of the novel Bastian has saved Fantasia, in the book he goes there and it wanders off into battles with Xiathis, which are used and terribly adapted in the sequel. Petersen had great foresight and knew, this is the best part of the book, and this is my film, Ende can keep the rest.

The Neverending Story (19484, Warner Bros.)

The Neverending Story is a great departure for Wolfgang Petersen. It is also a monumental fantasy, and perfect for the 1980s where it seemed people were starting to lose hope, and they had some good reasons to, but the cinema was trying to give them something to hold onto. The novel was on the bestseller list in Germany for four years and the film became a phenomenon in and of itself. It’s a little gem that could only have been a product of the 80s. 

End Notes

Miraculously the film does succeed as Oliver is a supporting player. The film does have kinks in its armor like why an attic key is so easy for him to find in a school but it still works and you’ll see why.

In Ende’s novel the land is called Fantastica but it was changed to Fantasia in the film so that people would have a name they could identify with and also to make allusion to the Disney film.

Morla is a giant tortoise who literally is the Shell Mountain. It’s gender is never established one way or another, however, if forced to guess I believe Morla is a woman.

Cinematic Battle of the Nutcrackers

Every year for the past 5 years Ovation TV has a Battle of the Nutcracker’s wherein they play 5 different versions (rotating some out annually) of the ballet based on Tchaikovsky’s most renowned work. While I definitely qualify myself as an enthusiast rather than a savant of dance, this is a piece I know well enough such that I find it interesting to watch the different versions and pick a favorite.

Now within the ballet there are many variations for while Tchaikovsky’s music is the standard each choreographer has their signature while it was Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov who originally choreographed it, it’s perhaps Balanchine’s that’s most well known.

What’s most interesting to me about this “competition” where the viewers are invited to vote for their favorites is that it gets me thinking about adaptation. One could do quite a lengthy case study on The Nutcracker alone. While there are many either “filmed ballets” or cinematic versions based on Tchaikovsky there are many based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Just the fact that you have these two available sources available to freely adapt makes this quite a notable story.

However, a narrative as flexible as this wouldn’t suffice for a post for one could argue that “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James and “The Colour Out of Space” by H.P. Lovecraft are more malleable pieces of fiction based on the films they’ve spurned. What makes The Nutcracker a unique tale, is not only the fact that I personally would put it on a list of ‘The Great Stories’ meaning classic narratives I could watch re-interpreted any number of ways but also the fact that it does have two potential origins as a source material either in literature or in dance.

In honor of this great story and the novel idea by Ovation I thought it’d be good to have some suggested Nutcracker-related film viewing for the holiday season.

Here are perhaps the three most well-known (the ones I’ve seen) cinematic versions to get you started.

The Nutcracker in 3D (2010)

The Nutcracker in 3D (2009, Freestyle Releasing)

During its all too brief cinematic run it was referred to as The Nutcracker in 3D. Now with 3D being the cinematic boogeyman du jour home video is the way to check this film out. I won’t give too much away but this version is most definitely different and based on the story rather than the ballet. This allows the storytellers to have a lot of latitude and there are few if any safe decisions and this film will likely cause divisive reactions all around. Partially musical and very allegorical it’s a film that refuses to be ignored. It also features Elle Fanning (Super 8, We Bought a Zoo) and Charlie Rowe (Neverland).

Fantasia (1940)

Fantasia (Disney)

If you’re one who prefers your references and adaptations a bit more oblique then you need look no further than Disney’s pet project Fantasia. Along with many numbers from The Nutcracker you will of course see interpretations of may other classical pieces. This film is definitely all about Tchaikovsky’s music rather than the ballet though there is dancing too as you may well know.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (1993)

Macaulay Culkin and Jessica Lynn Cohen in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker (Warner Bros.)

This was the first place I was able to complete viewing the complete story of The Nutcracker ballet. My first attempt to view it live at Lincoln Center was interrupted halfway through. There are a few things that are interesting about this film not the least of which is that you have within it an encapsulation of George Balanchine’s choreography. You also have the fine narration of Kevin Kline. However, of course, what most will note is that it features Macaulay Culkin in the lead. The only major alteration is that the choreography, which for the nephew/nutcracker is rather minimal is diminished further here. While some may not even know this film even exists you might be further surprised to learn that this film is really perhaps the biggest power play Kit Culkin, Macaulay’s father and perhaps the most notorious stage parent in modern times, ever pulled off. Macaulay’s participation in The Nutcracker was really a case of living vicariously through your child. Though he speaks of it earnestly now of his distaste for the project it really doesn’t translate very much on film. Furthermore, Kit tried to influence the final cut of the film removing said narration and when it wouldn’t happen Culkin didn’t publicize the film so it was another Nutcracker box office bomb.

The Ovation block certainly made me want to look for other versions on film and I hope you enjoy these as well as seeking out others.