3 May 2007 | ackstasis
Shrouds of mystery
Yuriy Norshteyn's 'Tale of Tales (1979)' is an undisputed masterpiece of Russian animation, a spectacularly beautiful journey into the depths of the mind, and sometimes held as the single greatest animated film of all time, a title that I would wholeheartedly endorse. The direct predecessor to 'Tale of Tales,' Norshteyn's 'Hedgehog in the Mist' is held in much the same high regard and, whilst I don't think it is quite as good, the fact remains that it is a stunning piece of Russian animated cinema.
I had to watch this film twice. The first time around, not understanding a word of Russian, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the images presented to me. Though I greatly enjoyed the beauty and intricate detail of the animation, I was ultimately unsatisfied with some parts of the story that I couldn't quite decipher, without which I was unable to unlock the deeper meaning of the work. Where, for example, was the hedgehog heading that night? What was he carrying in the bundle? Why was he compelled to follow the white horse into the unknown of the mist? After viewing translations for some of the key pieces of dialogue and narration, I approached the film a second time. Armed with a better knowledge of the finer points of the story, I was able to more fully appreciate the beauty of Norshteyn's film, and how the stunning animation and spoken words complement each other. For example, on that fateful evening, the hedgehog was going to meet his friend the bear, whom he meets with every time to drink tea, count the stars and have conversations. In the bundle, he carries a jar of raspberry marmalade that he has prepared for the occasion.
As for why the hedgehog decided to descend into the mist, we are told that it is because he wonders if the beautiful white horse would suffocate if he lies down in the fog. I think, however, that it is something much more than that. It is the lure of the unknown. The low-lying mist presents to him all life's beauty and terror, satisfying an underlying desire for the excitement and adventure of the unfamiliar, a means of breaking down the monotony of his usual safe and routine existence. This unconscious thirst for adventure exists in all of us, and the hedgehog is one who felt compelled to take that extra step into the mist. Despite being terrified and shaken by the experience, it nonetheless has changed him, and he will carry the memory with him for the rest of his life, and his daily routine will forever seem mundane in comparison. For the first time in his life, rather than merely counting the stars in the sky, the hedgehog was inspired to reach towards them.
The animation itself, it need not be said, is truly a beautiful achievement. Like in all his films, Norshteyn's animation has a certain timelessness about it, seeming to exist in a world that I'm sure we've all visited in our dreams. The fog effects, so crucial to the atmosphere of the film, were created by putting an extremely thin piece of paper on top of the scene and slowly lifting it frame-by-frame toward the camera until everything behind it became blurry and white. To describe this film as beautiful would simply be an understatement.