Essential: MAUGLI (1973)

TB: I am going to let Jlewis take the spotlight here, since he has a lot of interesting information about this film. I do like the fact that he selected something that is basically a compilation piece, where previously produced segments of Soviet animation are put together to make a coherent feature involving most of the same characters. So it feels a bit serialized but yet epic.

I found it interesting when he talked about the socialist aspects of how men and women (co)operate in the Soviet culture; and how that affects the way female characters are depicted on screen in Soviet animation. That gives us a lot to consider, historically, especially compared to how the more traditional roles of men and women in western culture typically play out.

Anyway, I think you will enjoy reading what follows. And if you haven’t seen MAUGLI, you can find it on YouTube.

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JL: TALE OF THE FOX and THE ADVENTURES OF PRINCE ACHMED were essentially independent animated features involving one primary artist working with only the most limited number of assistants. Ladislas Starevich operated on the former with just his wife creating puppet costumes and daughter co-directing, making it a family affair. THE EMPEROR’S NIGHTINGALE was a little more involved but head director Jiri Trnka still only had five stop-motion animators working under him at the Bratri v Triku studio while he supervised a.k.a. Orson Welles style.

MAUGLI (MOWGLI), a series of five 20 minute short films later stitched into a feature, differs from that trio in that it was the creation of a big animation factory roughly the same size as, if not bigger than, the contemporary Disney or Hanna-Barbera in the United States with no fewer than 16 key people working on the animation alone, even though they did not all work on the same individual films-within-a-film.

It is more challenging to single out one specific “artist in charge” here, but Roman Davydov is credited as director, Leonid Belokurov with script adaptation, Pyotr Repkin and Aleksandr Vinokurov as primary art directors involved with its unique post-UPA style and Sofia Gubaidulina providing the haunting musical score. A few of the animators later had successful careers as director-supervisors themselves, among them Aleksandr Davydov, Vyacheslav Kotyonochkin, Lyudmila Kasatkina and Nikolay Fyodorov.

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The film was made by Soyuzmultfilm, a company that still exists today. According to Wikipedia, it has 300 employees and has made 1500 or so individual films and TV shows to date. It was, in fact, launched with Josef Stalin’s approval as the Soviet Union counterpart to Walt Disney way back on June 10, 1936. It differed from Disney somewhat during the first eight years or so in that its product was exclusively in black and white since only a small handful of Soviet cartoons were in color during the decade of 1934-44, but these did include some fascinating Alexander Ptushko stop-motion shorts made at Mosfilm.

After the Russians took charge of the German film studios and all of that wonderful “UFA color” stock during the final year of the war, the great Disneyfication of Soviet animation was complete with a succession of all-color shorts, 20 minute featurettes and major epics running over an hour, beginning with THE LOST LETTER (ПРОПАВШАЯ ГРАМОТА / PROPAVSHAYA GRAMOTA) in 1945. These were now more-often-than-not fairy tales populated with fluidly animated furry stars and often rotoscoped humans, some multi-plane camera work and always highly detailed background paintings.

If there was any criticism of the unique “Soviet style” it was that it was a bit dry and serious in tone during the later ’40s and ’50s period with only limited “gags” involved (hardly any Looney Tunes humor) and much of the overall look was way too consistent at times, making it hard to “date” individual titles (even if the Soviet system slapped the years of completion on the opening title cards). It wasn’t until the early 1960s when, after several years of the nation loosening up some of its artistic creativity under Nikita Khrushchev, the studio animation displayed more variety of graphics akin to the National Film Board of Canada and the Zagreb school elsewhere.

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Many of the truly great cartoons of Soyuzmultfilm that we cartoon buffs love so much tend to be products of the mid-sixties through early eighties period rather than earlier. Despite a cold war raging between two nations, a surprising number of Soyuzmultfilms made United States theatrical screens and smaller TV screens during and before the Sputnik era. A few anti-American films never made it over for obvious reasons, but the vast majority was focused on inoffensive juvenile entertainment with little or no “commie” subliminal messaging involved. The studio’s adaptation of THE SNOW QUEEN was its biggest  international hit.

Charlton Heston narrated the American television debut of MAUGLI in 1996 (on PBS). Personally I favor the subtitled Russian original that I have on DVD, put out some years later. Both are available online currently for those who want to view both. Unfortunately too many changes were made to the U.S. version, including the loss of that wonderful Sofia Gubaidulina music and some sappy kid-oriented songs added.

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MAUGLI may seem a bit too dry for some tastes, but it is still entertaining and artful in its own right. The first installment of these Jungle Boy stories, titled RAKSHI, appeared in Russian theaters in December 1967, just two months after Disney’s THE JUNGLE BOOK opened thousands of miles away, but took on a different route of staying fairly close to the original Kipling.

It was given four follow-ups released annually before becoming a compilation feature in July 1973.

  • After establishing Mowgli’s adoption by the wolf pack in the first film, we see him grow up and deal with a mob of monkeys in POKHISHCHENIE (THE KIDNAPPING, 1968).
  • He then aids the dying wolf leader and frightens Shere Khan the tiger with his “red flower” (fire stick) and “iron tooth” that Kaa the python helps him obtain in POSLEDNYAYA OKHOTA AKELY (AKELA’S LAST HUNT, 1969).
  • A battle with a pack of dholes (smaller but ferocious red wolves) highlights BITVA (THE FIGHT, 1970).
  • After finally settling a to-the-death score with Shere Khan after he breaks a jungle law during drought time, Mowgli realizes with great emotion and tears, that he has grown into an adult and must now leave the jungle for an ominous return to human civilization in VOZVRASHCHENIE K LYUDYAM (RETURN TO MANKIND, 1971).

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One common theme in children’s books is growing up and leaving the world you are most comfortable with behind to face the unknown. Sometimes this theme is rather subtle, as with Wendy leaving the nursery setting in the Peter Pan story and Christopher Robin going to school in Winnie-the-Pooh. Both this film and Chuck Jones’ MOWGLI’S BROTHERS do a fine job in the final moments when Mowgli goes through great emotional anguish deciding what to do and Kaa observing that “it is hard to shed one’s skin until one is truly ready” (a reptilian reference in the English dubs).

The Disney version lacks a bit of depth here by comparison, since we have Sebastian Cabot’s Bagheera making a full commitment to “taking the man-cub back to the village where he belongs” rather than having Mowgli decide for himself as most kids favor. Likewise, the Disney version of Mowgli is quite obstinate up until the very end when he falls all a gaga over a water collecting maiden (a.k.a. Baloo quipping to Mowgli’s first sight of her: “Forget about those, they ain’t nothin’ but trouble”).

The Soviet adaptation, but not the Chuck Jones’ version, has him glimpse multiple women from a distance, then he catches the eye of one by herself later and she flees him in great fright while he stares at her with intensive awe, an interesting alternative to the usual teenage sexual awakenings we are accustomed to in mass entertainment.

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Among the few major liberties taken with Kipling is the change in gender for Bagheera the black panther, now a female with cubs briefly shown in one episode, This I find a novel idea since the original book is too bro-buddy oriented and needs a strong female character for female readers and viewers to identify with besides Mommy Wolf. Although rather sexy in voice (popular Soviet actress Lyudmila Kasatkina does great here, resembling Eartha Kitt as Catwoman), the way she is animated with great stealth and athletic ability makes her one tough force.

This is the key trademark of many Soviet films of that period, both live action and animated. Not that American screens didn’t have their own female super heroes, but the whole socialist set-up in that Enemy Country had both genders working a lot together in major industrial projects and occasionally during wartime conflict as well. Girls simply had more opportunity to be just like the boys over-there than in the United States and this was reflected in the screen entertainment.

I absolutely love the visual style that remained very consistent during a five year production-and-release period, enough for the shorter films to be seamlessly compiled together as if they were made all at once like the Disney version. Although the animators changed over the course of the five individual films, there was a strict adherence to model sheets to prevent the characters from changing.

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The designs are rather angular, a bit like UPA and Japanese anime of the sixties, with very bright colors and especially thick ink outlines bordering the animal bodies. Bagheera often resembles some peculiar vase when she is sitting upright and, when leaping from a tree with Mowgli on her back, she literally becomes Plastic Man of DC Comics.

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Both she and Baloo, a fellow black character, feature a mix of white and gray ink outlines in the night scenes and when walking together briefly, creating a shimmering effect. The backgrounds employ a great deal more watercolor in their creation that was typical during that period in world animation, although I am reminded of Ryan Larkin’s contemporary work in spots.

It looks like some attempt was made to do actual zoological research into India’s wildlife. (Likewise, their version of RIKKI TIKKI TAVY features a native India family instead of a British colonial one like the book and Chuck Jones’ adaptation.) There is no orangutan like the Disney version since they are not found in India outside of a zoo.

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However, we get the usual wolf pack, elephants, tiger, black leopard, an Asiatic black bear (although a sloth bear may be more suitable since it is the more common species south of the Himalaya), dholes, golden jackal (but with an odd mask, making him resemble the Russian raccoon-dog a bit), an India python much bigger in size than he should be (but that is due to Kipling making him too big to begin with), gaur (Rama the bull), eagles, peacocks and other local fauna (cranes, storks, water buffalo and sambar deer included, as well as an India lion and lioness cameo), plus a huge “herd” of langur monkeys that required a lot of animated en-masse motion and intricate cel painting frame-by-frame.

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Personally I consider Mowgli as the least inspired design. His toddler appearance with big oval eyes is absolutely adorable. But his later teenage version is too muscular like a comic book (and later Saturday morning TV Filmation) version of Tarzan, a problem I also have with the male human lead in THE CAT WHO WALKED BY HIMSELF (or herself). In this regard, I favor the look of Disney’s Mowgli better since he fits a small boy growing up in a jungle better.

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The stories are a lot of fun, even if they may lack the high comedy with Phil Harris’ talents and use established Russian actors (with comic star Sergei Martinson featured in all but one installment as Tabaqui the jackal, in addition to sultry Kasatkina and Lev Shabarin doing the older Mowgli) taking it all so seriously. Although a large portion of the audience may have been juvenile, this production is made for all age groups and can be quite dark and violent at times, the dhole pack scenes in THE FIGHT being the most graphic.

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By comparison to that action packed episode, the finale’s death of Shere Khan is presented rather too quickly with mere flashes of bright red dominating the screen, followed by his stripped skin draping the rocks. One short part in AKELA’S LAST HUNT, involving Mowgli’s search for the “iron tooth” gets a bit psychedelic in its visuals and it is possible that the Russian artists were observing the whole counter culture scene out west with considerable curiosity; likewise, the peacock spreads that open and close the episodes can invite referencing to the whole “peacock” fashion scene of Swinging London.

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One minor weakness in regards to the animation is that there are too many animals in this jungle at times. The overall effect is particularly odd in THE FIGHT when the dholes appear to swarm like hungry ants, when the real canine pack would have less than fifty individuals instead of what appears to be thousands. Some of the same issues apply to the hoard of monkeys in the second film, THE KIDNAPPING.

I do consider the ending a little too compact and slightly disappointing. Our hero is merely bidding farewell to the jungle he was raised in with just a simple waving goodbye as the final credits end it rather abruptly. Emotional depth is not as strong here as it may be in other Russian entertainment. Nonetheless I adore the music score and atmospheric settings here, the former getting lost in the nineties upgrade for U.S. TV audiences.

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