It is based on a fable/poem written by Sergey Mikhalkov (who's also known for writing the Soviet and Russian national anthem lyrics) that was first published in the official journal of the Russian (then Soviet) Defense Ministry on 1945, Э 15/16. You can read the original here (press ctrl+f, type in "Полкан и Шавка"). Mikhalkov also wrote the screenplay for the animated film, and he changed some of the basic plot and wrote new lines for the film. Dark though the film be, the original poem is far more bleak: Polkan and Shavka chase a rabbit, get lost in the woods, and are beset by a pack of wolves (not just two/three as in the film). Polkan attacks them, kills one but is killed himself the next moment. Shavka throws herselves in their midst and does what she does in the film. The wolves eat her ("just in case") when they get to the meadow, but they're killed themselves when they attack the flock by shepherds armed with rifles (not just one boy with a rifle as in the film). The author's final line in the poem is:
For this fable, no moral need be said.
Polkan's fate saddens me. For Shavka, I'm not sad!
In the context, this seems to be a cautionary tale about turncoat Russians who cooperated with the Germans - with the message being that you'll die either way, so at least don't die as a betrayer of your friends. But in the film, Polkan's survival allows him to (through a great effort of will) alert the boy shepherd in time to save the flock and himself. Also, many will note that the boy is a remarkably excellent sniper at the end - perhaps a reminder for Soviet children to do well at the shooting exercises that they did in schools for decades after the war.
As with the earlier animated adaptation of a poem/fable, "The Stolen Sun", "Polkan and Shavka" speaks to current events at the time it was made, while cloaking them in an ageless story. Someone from a completely different culture could watch this film and understand instantly what it's about.
When I watch this film, I am struck by the excellent character animation. These days, the definition of a character in an animated film is often done mostly through stylistic decisions, with the actual animation being minimal. In the time that this film was made, it was the opposite - the style of every film was almost the same, so if a character were to be defined, it could only be done through the way it acted. And so every character in this film moves in a very particular way. For example, the dogs' characters are defined in the very first scene in which we see them - at 0:42. Polkan's pose is good-natured, relaxed and confident. Shavka bends her body this way and that and doesn't stay in one place too long. There follow some very complicated (because of perspective) animation sequences of the dogs chasing the rabbit, followed by a fantastic example of acting accompanying spoken words (1:36). The next bit that really stood out to me is the confident, predatory walk of the two wolves at 2:35 - I get shivers just looking at it. And then, of course, Polkan fighting the wolves, while Shavka backs away with her tail between her legs. At 7:45, as Polkan comes out of the water, his resolve and his physical weakness is portrayed - his back bends as he comes out, making us feel pity for him. (by the way, at 7:26, look at the wonderful animated water effect, with wavy reflections. I wonder how they did it?)
The excellent musical score is by the famous composer Mieczysław Weinberg (Moisey Vainberg). It really strengthens the film. Especially note the approach of the wolves - two alternating melodies corresponding to the wolves and Polkan, which combine at 8:07 when the two are seen in the same shot for the first time.
Concerning the overall sound design, though, somebody screwed up. It took me a few weeks of fiddling to get the soundtrack more-or-less in sync with the video for this film. The trouble is that the original soundtrack doesn't seem to have been in sync either over the overall length, so I had to take away bits of sound from one place and add them to another (wherever I could find silence, where it wouldn't be noticeable). I also combined video and audio sources from two different places, using the video from an unlicensed DVD release ("Multparad #7") and the audio from a low-quality AVI (which had a much richer sound for some reason). Programs used were Audacity and SUPER (by eRightSoft), both of them excellent free programs.
Final audio changes made (after a lot of fiddling):
+1.407 s. of silence to start
-0.100 s. at 7:52
-0.100 s. before shot
-0.100 s. at 7:57
Here's the original Russian text from the film vs. my English translation. I tried my best to preserve the structures of the rhymes:
-А ну его, пошли домой.
-Вот это да, удрал косой.
Когда-бы я одна была,
уж я его-бы догнала
забыл-бы как его зовут.
-Идем, идем. Нас дома ждут.
-Oh, let him be. We should go back.
-Just look at that! We've lost his track!
If I had been alone today,
He never would have got away!
His very name he would forget!
-Come on. We're missed back home, I bet.
Я чую смерть свою... Что будем делать?..
Я на себя возьму того, что посильнее,
А ты бери того. Будь только посмелее,
-Полкаша... я боюсь!
-There's nowhere to hide...
I sense my death... What do we do?..
I'll take the one who looks the stronger.
You take the other. Be brave a little longer.
-Polkan-dear... I'm scared!
Голубчики! Не погубите!
Сродни ведь прихожусь я вам!
Поверьте вы моим словам -
Вы на уши мои, на хвост мой посмотрите!
А чем не волчья шерсть на мне?
Сбылась мечта моя - попала я к родне!
Пошли за мной, я показать вам рада,
Где у реки полднюет стадо...
My dears! Please don't think of slaughter!
I'm of the same kin as you!
Believe you me, my words are true -
My ears, my tail - I am your long-lost daughter!
Is this not wolf's fur on my skin?
My dream's come true - I am among my kin!
Come follow me, it would be my delight
To lead you to the herd's new grazing site.
Я привела вас
За кустами стадо
Ой! Не смотрите так!
Что еще вам надо?!
Just beyond's your feed.
Oh! Don't stare like that!
What more do you need?!
С волками серыми
на дружбу ты пошла
Спасти хотела шкуру,
да не спасла.
You thought that grey wolves
you could befriend
To save your skin,
but still you met your end