niffiwan (niffiwan) wrote,

Russian animation for the holidays! An overview from 1913 to modern times

This is an overview of the Russian holiday-themed animated films that are currently available to be watched with English subtitles (or wordless) on, listed from earliest to latest. Each film will have a description, as well as a summary of what's good about it (why you may enjoy watching it), and what's bad about it (why you may not want to watch it).

I've recently either made new subtitle translations or fixed up the existing subtitles for quite a few of these.

Below, click on any of the images to watch the film. This article may be updated in the days to come. (Last update: Jan 4, 2021. Added the 1950 and 1988 films)

Each film below is rated; here's what the ratings mean:
**** - I loved it
*** - I liked it
** - I thought it was ok
* - I didn't like it
(no stars) - haven't watched it yet (or not recently)

A Little Background

Just like the winter holiday season contains two distinct celebrations in the West (Christmas and the New Year), so it is also in Russia. With the following difference:

In the West, the tradition of dressing up a fir tree, giving gifts and sweets to each other or to children, a mythical bearded old man distributing the gifts, and intimate family time, all stemming from pre-Christian traditions, are linked to Christmas (Dec 25). The New Year, by contrast, is basically a party.

On the other hand, in Russian Orthodox Christianity, the birth of Christ isn't celebrated on Dec. 25, where the Gregorian Calendar puts it, but, following the Older Julian calendar, around Jan. 7. In Russia, that day is currently strictly a Christian holiday.

The mid-winter gift-giving traditions are instead celebrated on the New Year. The Father Christmas figure is named "Ded Moroz" in Russian (Ded = Old Man/Grandpa, Moroz = Cold, Chill, Cold Weather), commonly translated into English as Father Frost, Grandpa Frost or King Winter. Originally, he was the personification of the winter's cold, and was responsible for its worst weather. In some Russian fairy tales, he continues living even in the summer in places such as the bottoms of wells.

Gradually, his character became softer, probably influenced by the Western Santa Claus traditions, and sometimes this goes so far that he becomes more gnome-like and indistinguishable from Santa Claus. You'll see this with some of the films below. It really depends on the director. In other films, he retains the ability to travel by turning himself into a gust of snow.

In the West, Santa Claus traditionally has a few characters who appear with him - his wife, Mrs. Claus, his elves who make the presents, his reindeer (including that famous one, Rudolf). I suppose the models for all these came from the American Rankin Bass puppet animations. In Russia (and nearby countries), Grandpa Frost is often accompanied by the Snow Maiden (Snegurochka, who is sometimes his daughter and sometimes created out of snow), by a Snowman (who is his helper in various roles - for example, driving him around), or by the personified New Year. He doesn't typically associate with elves or reindeer, nor does he climb down chimneys (perhaps this is largely because most Russians lived in apartments with no chimneys to speak of).

The Films

The Insects' Christmas (1913) ****

In one of the very earliest puppet animations, and perhaps the first Christmas animation ever, Grandpa Frost is a tree decoration who climbs down from the Christmas tree and goes to the forest to celebrate with the animals.
The good: This film is well over 100 years old now and is still magical. The puppets move very nicely, and it's quite historically interesting
The bad: If you're not one for silent films with only music, it may not be for you. Also, the image quality available online isn't the best and sometimes it's a bit hard to make out what's going on.

Starevich, the director of this film, fled to France after WW1 and became a major part of the animation scene there for decades. In Russia, no holiday-themed animated film would be made again for decades, as it was all banned until 1936 (due to the communists not liking "superstitions").

Grandpa Frost and the Grey Wolf (1937) ***

This cartoon is notable for being the very first appearance of Granda Frost (Ded Moroz) in Soviet animated history, coming the year after the winter holidays were allowed to be celebrated once again. This is the "template" of the character that later films used. This was Hodatayeva's second film at the studio; her first was the really interesting "The Returned Sun" which rather stood out from the rest of the studio's films - this one is more typical.
The good: Historically interesting, has some catchy songs and decent characters. The portrayal of Grandpa Frost feels "right" to me.
The bad: The animation is not all that polished, like most other films of the studio in those years. May be too cutesy for some.

This is newly translated. Accurately, but without rhymes.

Winter Tale (1945) ****

This cartoon, made in the fateful year of 1945, was only recently restored. Grandpa Frost helps the forest animals welcome the New Year (who actually appears in person, riding on a troika). Good times are had by all.
The good: Very warm and wholesome, and beautifully animated. I'd say it's a real treasure.
The bad: There is almost no story and almost no conflict. It's just about enjoying the experience.

New Year's Eve (1948) ***

I've just finished a new English translation of this one, which was a lot of work because the film is entirely in rhyme.
The good: Excellent animation (typical of the post-war years). An interesting concept, in which Grandpa Frost with his modern technology has a contest against the wood spirit Leshy, who represents traditional fairy tales.
The bad: It's also a slightly weird concept, and perhaps somewhat dated (the new technologies don't seem so new any more). I found the first half of the film to be more interesting than the second half.

When the New Year Trees Light Up (1950) ***

Two New Years' presents get lost and must find their way back to the children who are to receive them. I recently improved the translation for this one, but it could still be better.
The good: directed by the perfectionist Mstislav Pashchenko, this won the award of Best Children's Film at Karlovy Vary and is one of the beloved classic Soviet holiday cartoons. It has excellent animation, music and art direction, as well as likeable characters.
The bad: The only potential thing that stands out at me is that its target audience is quite young children, so it's possible that older viewers won't be able to relate to the main characters.

Christmas Eve (1951) ****

This isn't really about Christmas (and certainly not about New Year's) but about the night BEFORE, when traditionally all manner of demons can fly about and cause mischief. This part-mistaken-identities farce, part-love story was one of Gogol's most popular works, and was adapted into film many times in the early years of Russian cinema.
The good: This is a very strong adaptation of the story, and must be one of the best Soviet-era animated features, period. It was made by the Brumberg sisters, who were known to be very lively personalities, but it was made in the early 1950s which is perhaps the most "controlled" era that Russian animation has ever experienced (almost everything had to be socialist realist, and mostly rotoscoped). It is a bit of a paradox that it is really not a very typical sort of film for the Brumberg sisters, but it is also unquestionably one of their best. There are two English subtitle translations, a more 19th-century one and a more modern one. The 19th-century one is the default because that's the one that I've gone over, checked and corrected. And also, I think it quite suits the film.

Snowman Postman (1955) **

The good: A fun adventure, fairly well-executed.
The bad: Possibly a little too Disneyesque, and a little too silly. To be honest, I haven't watched this one very recently, maybe I should take another look at it...

The Twelve Months (1956) ***

In this animated feature, a poor girl gets handed an impossible assignment by a capricious princess and is helped by the 12 months of the year (personified).
I spent some time fixing up the subtitles on this one. Still lots of room for improvement, but they should be basically accurate now.
The good: It's a nice enough film, competently made.
The bad: It's not personally my favourite of either its era or of Ivanov-Vano's filmography. I feel there's a lack of real conflict, and the resolution seems to come too easy.

The Snow Queen (1957) ***

This isn't strictly a Christmas story, only a winter story, but I'm including it here because it became a tradition in certain Western countries to play this film over the holidays..
The good: A competently made, wholesome adventure story. One of the most successful exports of Soviet animation, beloved in many countries. This is the film that inspired Miyazaki to turn to animation, as Animation Obsession wrote about recently.
The bad: Is perhaps a bit overly slow, overly sappy, and too simple - like many of the most popular animated films of that era (they weren't all like that, but the ones that gained worldwide appeal tended to have those traits).

A New Year Journey (1959) *

The good: An adventure story with some action and excitement.
The bad: I think this one is very mediocre, unfortunately - uninspired and unoriginal art direction, a silly script, a "Ded Moroz" who is too much like the Western Santa Claus, weak characters. Which surprises me, as it comes from the director of the really well-done "Wolf and Seven Little Goats" of only two years before.

Grandpa Frost and the Summer (1969) ***

Valentin Karavayev's diploma work. He went on to make some quite good films.
The good: Quite competently made, and brightly coloured. It's not one of my favourites but I can easily see how it would be others'.
The bad: Aimed at quite young kids, sometimes a bit annoyingly so. Grandpa Frost is indistinguishable from Santa Claus in this one - in fact, he's completely lost the "stern" side of his character and become a hapless, silly old man who's intimidated even by an average truck driver.

The Nutcraker (1973)

Including this one here because in many places, The Nutcracker at Christmas is a tradition.
I haven't recently seen it myself, though.

A New Year's Wind (1975) ***

The good: good art direction, and it feels quite wintry and magical. Also has a nice song, and an unusual "myth" as the basis of it.
The bad: I suppose some might feel that it moves a bit too slowly or isn't very dynamic (the limitations of the puppets are noticeable at times, though mostly not).

Silver Hoof (1977) ****

Although the winter holiday is never outwardly mentioned in it, this animated film is about so many of the things we associate with that holiday: warmth, family, wintry coziness... encounter with a supernatural being that is slightly unsettling yet ultimately kind. Even the lights decorating a holiday tree are referenced, without actually being referenced.
The good: Beautiful art direction, a great narrator, and likeable characters.
The bad: I feel that the more one is able to pay attention to details, the more one will be taken in by the magic of this one. If you prefer action, it may seem too slow.

Grandpa Frost and the Grey Wolf (1978) ***

Made by Vitold Bordilovskiy, 41 years after the first film with that name. The overall conflict is similar, but the execution is very different, as are all the characters with the exception of Grandpa Frost. The wolf looks just like the one in "You Just Wait" (Nu Pogodi).
The good: cheerful animation, good characters, good songs. A fun, well-crafted, family-friendly film, typical of Soyuzmultfilm at its best and most mainstream in that era.
The bad: not exactly subtle or mysterious. Not as magical as the films of the 1940s/1950s. Apart from that, this is a good choice if you're in the holiday mood.

A New Year's Adventure (1980) ***

The good: I think all of Yulian Kalisher's films are subtly brilliant, and that's true of this one too. Perhaps my favourite thing about it is how it reveals the common forms of relations among people in everyday Soviet society (for example, the bear offering to do something for the human father "as acquaintences" - "po znakomstvu", not a very easy phrase to translate into English).
The bad: Well, unlike Kalisher's later films, the art direction (the look of the puppets) isn't really that interesting, just typical of the period. Perhaps to some folks this one will just seem a "typical puppet film".

Films by Vladimir Samsonov (1981-1982) (* to ****)

The good: animated poems - at their best, charming vignettes that combine music and animation
The bad: I really like "Highlights", also "Felt Boot", and "Masquerade", "Rendezvous" and "Magpie" not that much. Samsonov made these very quickly, and sometimes it shows

A New Year Song from Father Frost (1983, Jan. 1) **

The right time to watch this is right after the New Year. It's a comedic song from Grandpa Frost and his snowman sidekick.
The good: It has many of the things we love from Tatarskiy, and is a catchy song
The bad: This is second-tier Tatarskiy - good, but not aiming at the stars as he was in his later "Under Yesteryear's Snowfall"; with less ambition. Also, a lot less effort has been put into the English translation, so the effect will not be as good.

Under Yesteryear's Snowfall (1983) ****

At the most basic level, this is about a man sent to get a holiday tree by his wife.
The good: This one is iconic and quite loved. It was directed by the great director Tatarskiy at the height of his abilities, in the animation technique that he invented which is uniquely suited to them. It is a neverending barrage of inventiveness, and (just like many of the best Russian stories) it ends on a somewhat melancholy and thoughtful note. I should also mention that the English translation, made by AxmxZ in 2011, is brilliant and translates the many complicated jokes and puns in a way I wouldn't have thought was possible.
The bad: The viewer(s) must be in the mood for something hectic. In particular, if this is put on for a group of people while they are not paying attention, they may just register it as "noise". It parodies very many Russian folk tales, and if you happen to not know most of them, watching it will be more bizarre than it really should be.

The Little Fir Tree (1984) ****

A story about the life, old age and death of a Christmas tree. This film is set DURING the gift-giving holiday, but is not really really ABOUT it.
The good: Beautiful art direction and music, and an excellent telling of the tale.
The bad: This is a rather sad Andersen story, and so is the film. The excellent art direction only makes it more so.

December 32 (1988) ****

This film by Vladimir Samsonov is like a mini rock-opera. It's about a romantic New Years' celebration that goes wrong due to a series of misunderstandings. I recently made a fairly good translation of it (which was really hard to do, but I think it's worth it).
The good: Catchy music, sophisticated, funny.
The bad: It starts out a bit abstract (though still with catchy music), and it takes a few minutes until the main story gets going. If you want one for the kids, this ain't it; it's definitely psychologically aimed more at adults (there's no Grandpa Frost / Santa Claus to be seen anywhere). Some people might be put off by the angular art style, while others will like it.

Pictures of Old (3): The Artist and the Stranger (1992) ****

Although this is "part 3", it is a stand-alone story.
The good: subtly directed, interesting art direction, engaging story
The bad: It's maybe a little out-there, not as much for "the mass public", and is not aimed at children. It's not really a holiday-season story as much as it is a story about an artist whose conclusion happens to coincide with the holiday season.

A Christmas Fantasy (1993) ***

Based on Stravinskiy's ballet, this one is basically a romance story that has the Christmas celebration as a background. Notably, it is the pre-Soviet Christmas celebration.
The good: Russian animated films of the 1990s, at their best, had some really interesting experimentation and skill of a sort that's not done as much nowadays. It was a time of crisis, but it was also a time of lack of any restraints (good or bad), and that can't help but produce interesting results. I think that this wordless film is a bit of an acquired taste, but is quite stylistically interesting.
The bad: Some people may find the style too weird or may find the story a bit hard to follow at times. If that's the case, there's a plot summary in the link above.

The Nativity (1996) ***

This one's about a CHRISTIAN theme. It won many awards.
The Good: A well-directed story about the birth of Jesus that has won many awards. Both before this film and after it, the director tended to direct fast-moving, wacky comedies. This may be one of the most serious things he's done.
The Bad: When I first watched it, the naive way that angels were portrayed (with their doves'-wings) annoyed me. I suppose it still does a tiny bit, but I accept it as a valid artistic decision.

The Pilot Brothers Show Each Other New Year's Magic Tricks (1996) ***

One of the series of films about these two detective characters that Tatarskiy was making throughout the 1980s and 1990s. I translated it last year.
The good: Excellent comedic timing, attractive animation. It's no big masterpiece, but it's quite fun on a smaller scale.
The bad: Has lots of inside jokes that would seem rather weird if one hasn't seen the previous films in the series. Mind you, they'd seem weird even then. Also, the story is rather light.

Stew (2002) **

The good: It's funny.
The bad: It's kind of crude and quite short.

Salsa For an Angel (2010) *

The good: has a moral theme and decent art direction
The bad: this is a student film that is unfortunately rather obviously a student film - the anime influences, the somewhat smugly predictable way the plot moves along (not much mystery anywhere)... on the other hand, the opinion of viewers on Youtube is generally positive.

That's all for now... what do you think? Do you agree with my assessment of the films above? Which ones are your favourites?

An oversight of the above article is that there's very little from the last two decades - that's because I simply can't think of almost anything holiday-themed that I've seen. Among films I haven't seen, there's the 2012 animated Snow Queen feature, and its sequels. Can anyone suggest anything else?
Tags: 1910s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s, aldashin, amalrik, animation, atamanov, belyayev, bordzilovskiy, botov, brumberg, christmas, ivanov-vano, kalisher, kamenetskiy, karavayev, khodatayeva, koshkina, nosov, pashchenko, samsonov, shilobreyev, sokolskiy, starevich, stepantsev, tatarskiy, анимация, мультфильмы

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