The past couple of years have seen a sharp rise in feature-length cartoons being produced in Russia. From 2010-14 only one or two Russian-made cartoons made it to the big screen each year, but in 2015, nine animated films were distributed, of which five made country-wide cinema releases. So far in 2016 three major Russian pictures have been shown in cinemas alongside Hollywood cartoons, and four more are scheduled for release throughout the year.
Watching loads of them all in one go is bound to reveal some insightful observations. So that's what I did.
One of the biggest franchises in the Russian animation business is the Three Bogatyrs (a bogatyr is an epic hero from Russian tales and folklore, a patriotic knight fighting all kinds of evil), comprising six films with a seventh coming out later this year. Another is Ivan Tsarevich and the Grey Wolf, also based on the folk tale of a heroic prince, which has three cartoons under its brand. While these tales are without a doubt essential to Russian culture, the cartoon output on this topic seems disproportionate: there’s about one fantasy cartoon for three epic and folk ones. This may be innocent appreciation and nostalgia, but the outdated morals and ethics of these folk tales are sure to feed into the revival of “traditional values” in Russian society today.
Concern about this disturbing trend gets confirmed less than 10 minutes into the first bogatyr-centred film, as an army of Mongolian-looking villains upsets the peace in a remote town inhabited by friendly, church-going Slavs. Later, once you realise that the same plot line is repeated over and over again, you start to appreciate the simple monster villains that occasionally appear. When the baddies aren’t of a different skin colour they are still foreigners — like, for example, in The Fortress: By Shield And Sword, where the villains attacking a brave Russian fortress city are Polish. It’s a worrying concept for a country like Russia, where xenophobia is on the rise, especially when it comes in the form of cartoons produced for young children.
If you thought you wouldn’t be bodyshamed by a children’s cartoon, think again.
Is this international diplomacy being explained to the very young, or a sarcastic joke based on stereotypes aimed at entertaining parents who are watching this with their kids? We will never know for sure.
A sermon is not something you’d expect from a cartoon. The name — The Extraordinary Adventures of Serafima — might have been a clue, as the name Serafima has definite Christian connotations. At the centre of the plot is a priest’s daughter, Serafima, who lives in an orphanage during the Second World War and struggles with keeping her faith in a Soviet environment hostile to religion. The story is almost aggressive in its sermoning, and it’s hard to see how it could be considered entertainment. Reviews on sites like Kinopoisk show that parents who took their children to watch it also gave it a hard pass.
The war theme is so persistent you might easily forget that cartoons can be about other things. All of the bogatyr films feature an armed conflict of sorts, and others, like The Fortress: By Shield and Sword and The Extraordinary Adventures of Serafima, treat war like an everyday occurrence. Of course, Russian history and epic tales are heavy on conflict, but broadcasting the message of fighting and/or dying for the motherland to young children seems unnecessary and cruel.
A logical consequence of the previous point: some of these cartoons get quite violent. The Fortress: By Shield and Sword features an extensive battle scene with explosions and soldiers being afraid and dying — and it’s not accompanied by the pacifist sentiment you may have expected. Taking into account this animated patriotism together with the Russian parliament’s attempts to ban children from buying violent computer games, the conclusion is there waiting to be announced: is violence OK as long as it’s organised and approved by the motherland?
There no explanation for this, nor is it important for the plot. Just a twerking break — deal with it.
No, your eyes are not deceiving you, and no, you haven’t watched too many of these cartoons. This could be a sharp sarcastic comment about militarism and over-the-top Russian-ness being sold to so many children through these cartoons, but at this point it’s hard to tell.
Smeshariki, a film and (ironically) a TV show franchise about rotund, animal-like creatures, would have you believe that watching too much TV can be dangerous. In the first cartoon of the series, called Smeshariki: Inception, the heroes find an old TV and become addicted to a superhero show they believe to be true. Inevitably, this leads them into several sticky situations.
If you were hoping that sexism wouldn’t make the list, unfortunately it does. Female characters are there to be modest, to inspire men to be brave and heroic, or serve as kidnap material. They also occasionally serve traditional Russian dishes.
Can we get a mention of Russian food and not talk about blini? The answer is no, we can’t.
Bogatyrsha is a cartoon about a female bogatyr hero, bringing some khaleesi vibes as she rides a three-headed dragon like a true Targaryen. The animation and graphics are truly disappointing though — anyone who can watch it to the end is probably a fan of retro video games.
How To Catch A Firebird’s Feather (Kak poymat pero zhar-ptitsi) is based on a folk tale but is surprisingly kind in the best Disney/Pixar tradition. The Ivan Tsarevich franchise is funny (watch out for the newspaper called Lies), and Smeshariki and Belka And Strelka: Star Dogs are cute in the most internet-aware way (round animals and talking dogs anyone?) Just don’t try to watch too many of them in a row.
Text: Sasha Raspopina
Image courtesy of Melnitsa studio, STV, Touch FX Animation, Paradis, KinoAtis, GK Riki, SKA Peterburg, Fond Kino, Dereza, Russobit M, Inlay Film