A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Jack Frost (Morozko)

December 16, 2010

Jack Frost (Morozko)

This is not the Michael Keaton movie with the possessed snowman. Nor is it the cheesy horror movie of the same title. Instead this is the 1964 Russian fairy tale. Amanda and I were delighted when we were able to find this DVD in the original Russian with English subtitles since we had seen the American dub so many times as an episode of MST3K. It makes it into our Christmas collection because Amanda had heard that this was traditional Christmas viewing in Russia and Finland. It kind of makes sense that this magical adventure with its winter theme and lush production values would make great winter solstice viewing, especially in Soviet Russia when anything overtly religious or Christmasy would have been forbidden.

This is the magical tale of two young people who will of course inevitably fall in love. There’s Nastenka, an industrious and beautiful young girl who is cruelly forced to do chores by her domineering step-mother. Then there’s Ivan, the brash handsome youth who cares about nothing beyond himself. Fairy tale things happen to them. Nastenka must accomplish impossible tasks at her step-mother’s request. Ivan must learn humility and discover that there are people besides himself worth caring for.

For the most part this movie is made up of very familiar tales and tropes. Indeed I think the parts that are not instantly familiar to me are probably recognisable to the target audience of Russian children. The story of Nastenka as the much abused step-daughter clearly has its root in whatever folk tale also gave rise to Cinderella. Then there’s Baba Yaga the Russian witch with her chicken-legged house who flies in a mortar. I’m familiar with her mostly due to the writings of Neil Gaiman who uses her a couple times in different works, but I know she’s a traditional Russian fairy tale villain. Morozko himself, the Jack Frost of the title, is a fairly self-explanatory magical figure – the elderly gentleman responsible for coating all the trees in frost as winter begins (by means of his magical scepter.) But then there’s the little magical dwarf with the mushroom hat – I feel sure that if I knew my Russian folk-lore better he’d also be a familiar figure, but I don’t so he’s just a strange little fellow who puts a curse on Ivan to teach him a lesson. There’s a whole plot point where Ivan is given the head of a bear until he can break his egotistical ways which I’m sure is part of another popular Russian folk tale, but which is unique to this movie for me.

There’s a sing-song rhyming quality to a lot of the original Russian dialog in this movie. This was a great discovery for me since I’m so used to the English dub, which doesn’t feature that. This is probably a good thing since the subtitles attempt to do the rhyming thing and end up just seeming goofy – I think this is definitely a case where the original language clearly does something that cannot be replicated with sub-titles or a dub. On the other hand I never would have noticed the constant rhyming in the Russian if I hadn’t been reading the awkward and non-sensical subtitles. Once it became clear to me what the subtitles were trying to replicate I ignored them and listened to the Russian and I could hear the cadence and the rhymes.

I was impressed, however, by how closely the English dub matches the original Russian inflections and voices. I’ve seen this movie MiSTed many, many times and have huge portions of it memorised, and I frankly could probably have turned off the subtitles altogether and still known exactly what the characters were saying. Listening to the Russian I found myself hearing the dub I’m so familiar with, and the two are extremely close to each other.

This is a beautiful, magical movie. It doesn’t have a lot of complex special effects (just some double exposures, backwards film and dissolves) but it has beautiful locations, some quite intricate costumes, and wonderful use of a vibrant color palette. It’s a treat for the eyes. The DVD features a particularly clear print of the movie that has been lovingly restored. It makes it hard to believe that this was produced way back in the sixties. Say whatever you will about those “godless Communists” they sure knew how to manufacture a rich film stock.

The magic, the beauty, and the wonder of this movie makes it appropriate for a Christmas collection even if it actually doesn’t have anything to do with Christmas. I could easily see this becoming traditional viewing in my household at this time of year at any rate.

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December 16, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , ,

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