I”m not a big fan of Soviet era animation.
Now I’ll admit I haven’t seen much of it. And one does have to make exceptions for films like Fantastic Planet, which a French director made in Czechoslovakia because it was cheap. And, of course, there is The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and all the other incredible combinations of live action and animation by Karel Zeman.
However, there are people out there who are really into it and will compare Soviet animation to early Disney. Frankly, my impression of the films I have seen, like The Mystery of the Third Planet is that they look like typical Saturday morning kids fare, with bright colors and routine looking animation.
But then, I’m not much of a fan of early Disney films, either.
My first glimpses of this film led me to expect something along the line of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation, but this is actually a puppet animation film, similar to George Pal’s early Puppetoons shorts. It is based on one of the long series of children’s SF stories about Alisa Selezneva, a school girl in the future, written by Kir Bulychev, who has had more of his stories adapted into films than any other Russian SF writer (and, in fact, he also wrote the scripts for most of them). The majority were from the Alisa series or for other children’s films, but they also include more adult fare like Podzemelye vedm [The Witches Cave] and an original script for Cherez ternii k zvyozdam (To the Stars by Hard Ways).
As this is a children’s film, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that this is a fairly simple and straightforward sort of story. Alissa and her biological robot friend Paul are sent to do biological research in the South Pacific, where they’ve been assigned to study the “Yap Lagoon.”
Now I have to wonder whether this is an accurate translation. Not only does their map of the atoll not look like the real Yap island (which does not have a lagoon), but this lagoon is supposedly the resting place of a large number of Japanese WWII warships.
Now these wrecks are very real — including the Yamagiri-Maru, itself. The only problem is that they are hundreds of miles away in Truk Lagoon.
Which doesn’t actually look like their map, either.
I have to admit I keep comparing this film to Captain Scarlet or some of the other Gerry Anderson series, whether these are marionettes or not. And not favorably, either. The characters are not as well designed or as expressive and they lack the character Gerry brought to his puppets. The sets are nowhere near as good: they are rather soft on detail (even compared with early Anderson offerings like Fireball XL5!). Nor do the vehicles seem as real as any of Derek Medding’s creations.
And, yes, they don’t have much detail, either.
The animation isn’t all that impressive either, although at least part of the reason is that the characters are built like elongated Barbie dolls, with stilt-like legs and narrow hips. They don’t have much flexibility and look awkward.
However, it all comes to life when they encounter mutant creatures in the wreckage — big, octopus-like things with clawed hands, which have a lot more life to them than anything else we’ve seen, except perhaps the shark they skeletonize.
There’s also an interesting sequence when the computer tells them the history of the lagoon using vintage World War II footage, which has been heavily solarized and tinted red. It is all quite striking, if a bit propagandistic.
Ultimately, this is a children’s film. They’ll enjoy it more than the rest of us and there isn’t much here to appeal to an adult audience. It’s fairly simple and straightforward, with a moderately effective series of underwater action scenes at the end.
Just don’t ask more of it than that and you’ll be fine.
Although I just can’t shake my horrible suspicion that this was meant to be an educational film…