From iconic and philosophical to obscure and moronic - what did these trippy Soviet cartoons of the late USSR look like?
Since the 1970s, an increasing number of cartoons, often not aimed at children at all, had begun to appear in the USSR. Some had such deeply philosophical and multi-layered meanings that not everyone could fully understand what the director even wanted to say. Worse yet, some made no sense at all.
Hedgehog in the Fog (1975, Yuri Norstein)
This short film, which long considered a classic of Soviet animation, at first glance, seems like a simple fairy tale about the friendship between a hedgehog and a little bear. The Hedgehog goes to visit the Little Bear and, on his way, finds himself in a dense fog, where strange things start happening: he meets a marvelous white horse, stumbles upon a tree that represents a portal to another world, gets pursued by a scary owl and bats, and almost drowns in a river. At the end, he does make it to his friend's house, where they drink tea and count the stars together.
The animated movie contains many references to Dante Alighieri's 'Divine Comedy'.
"When we were drawing the Hedgehog, we were looking at Andrei Rublev's 'The Savior' (an icon of Jesus Christ). ... There had to be a sense of the hero's worldliness. His gaze, his movements..." the director later said. "It's a story of how our habitual state can suddenly turn into a catastrophic one under the influence of some circumstances we aren't even aware of," he also said.
A Box with a Secret (1976, Valery Ugarov)
This ten-minute musical is based on 'A Town in a Snuffbox' - a fairy tale by the Russian writer Vladimir Odoevsky, the founder of musicology: in it, a little boy was trying to get inside a snuffbox to figure out how it worked. In his dream, the boy imagined that he succeeded, and discovered an entire town inside. Bright colors and a sharp visual style serve to reinforce the effect of the chaotic scenes from the snuffbox "world" - altogether making it appear almost frightening.
Contact (1978, Vladimir Tarasov)
According to the plot, the artist goes out on a plein air, but his plans are disrupted by an alien creature. Having descended to Earth, it tries to understand the world around it through mimicking. As a result, the artist teaches the alien to whistle the melody of 'Speak Softly Love' from the movie 'The Godfather'.
Wow, a Talking Fish! (1983, Robert Sahakyants)
Perhaps the strangest cartoons in this selection were created at the 'Armenfilm' studio, under the direction of Robert Sahakyants. However, they are not deprived of moral lessons. An old man catches a talking fish that asks to be released, instructing the man to "Do good - and throw it in the water. It won't be forgotten, it will come back to you in kind." The old man lets the fish go, but now has nothing to eat, and, in despair, sighs heavily. A monster, which he accidentally summoned with his sigh, rises up from beneath the ground. A traveler then saves the old man by talking to the monster, which turns out to be the reincarnated fish that the old man had earlier let go.
The cartoon's psychedelic nature manifests itself throughout: the monster transforms nonstop from one image to the next. Adding to that is the surreal dialogue between the fish-traveler and the monster. The fish gives an incomprehensible and confusing answer to every question posed by the monster, which finally pisses the monster off, causing it to fly off into space, where it gets hit by a meteor.
In the Blue Sea, in White Foam (1983, Robert Sahakyants)
In this cartoon, we encounter the same old man from 'Wow, a Talking Fish!' The old man is fishing with his grandson, but they accidentally catch a jar and unleash an ancient wizard who steals the boy to make him his heir. The wizard's entire kingdom convinces the boy to stay, singing the song 'Stay with us boy, you'll be our king' (perhaps,the trippiest scene in the cartoon - an absolute must-see! ).
There is a lot of strange imagery here, including a human-fish hybrid with huge lips, a crocodile with a blinker like a car, fish with human legs, ship-eating monsters, and an aquarium at the bottom of the sea.
Last Year's Snowfall (1983, Alexander Tatarsky)
The narrator, jumping from topic to topic, tells the story of a man who goes to the woods to get a Christmas tree. This seemingly simple task gets him into a cycle of absurd twists and turns, eventually taking him three attempts to finally get the job done all the way in spring.
According to Alexander Tatarsky's recollections, the studio rejected the initial title of the cartoon, leading to it being renamed 'Last Year's Snowfall' - a title that came to him in a dream. In order not to forget it, the director wrote it on the floor with his wife's lipstick.
Wings, Legs and Tails (1985, Alexander Tatarsky and Igor Kovalev)
Although the cartoon was made in 1985, it was not released until a year later after being revised. The head of the studio refused to release the film, saying: "It's awful, you can't understand a thing!" The movie is only about four minutes long. It revolves around a vulture trying to teach an ostrich how to fly, but at the end learning that the ostrich can run faster than the vulture flies, with the dispute between wings and legs being resolved in favor of the ostrich.
December 32 (1988, Vladimir Samsonov)
"Believe me, we shouldn't fight over nothing!" - this phrase is repeated many times in the song of this cartoon musical, and conveys its entire meaning. The plot centers around a married couple who argue on New Year's Eve over mutual suspicions of infidelity. The wife claims that she and her husband do not understand each other, because, according to the Japanese calendar, she is a horse and he is a monkey. They end up turning into these animals, and the wife gets in the way of Santa Claus' train, jeopardizing the arrival of the New Year itself.
My Family (1989, Natalia Marchenkova)
A schoolboy is writing an essay about his family while simultaneously watching a popular TV program about tourism and travel. The boy's thoughts become intertwined with the anchor's narration, and the essay becomes nonsensical: "My grandmother stretches wide between the Urals and Altai. Mosses, mushrooms and lichens grow on her." In this style, the boy writes about each family member, with each description accompanied by an appropriate and crazy video sequence.
Fru-89 (1989, Ivan Maximov)
The cartoon begins with a definition of "frustration," followed by a picture of a dog howling at the moon. The moon is put into a meat grinder, with the resulting substance producing strange-looking creatures that devour each other.
Some have interpreted the cartoon as a political satire on the transformations taking place in the country at the time - which were leading nowhere - while others saw it as a philosophical parable on the futility of existence.
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