Music Box with a Secret

Make sure you’re sitting down and buckled up for this one because it’s going to take you for a ride. Music Box with a Secret is an unbelievable creative trip that hails from mid-seventies Russia. Director Valery Ugarov (1941-2007) utilizes a pastiche of sixties and seventies styles and artists as diverse as Heinz Edelmann and Yellow Sub, psychedelia, Seymour Chwast, and Victorian revival, and transforms it into an utterly unique and beautifully animated experience. The synth and electro-soundtrack adds a lot and is an inspired solution to a film about music boxes.

(Thanks, Animatsiya in English)


  • Scarabim

    I loved that funky thing! Now that’s how to design offbeat characters that aren’t ugly like those in Flapjack and Adventure Time. Wonderfully wacky. Thanks for posting this.

  • Anna

    YES!!! OMG, I used to love this cartoon back in the day! (and only recently did I become a Beatles fan, watched “Yellow Submarine” and now can’t see one w/out thinking of the other)

  • http://2dwannabe.blogspot.com robcat2075

    So, how many years in the gulag did he get for that?

    I’m imagining Leonid Brezhnev saying to the Central Committee “Comrades, let us all go to the kino and see the glorious new works of socialist realism produced by our co-operative animation collective!”

    And then when the lights come back on there’s some sort of Russian equivalent of “W…T… F…!”

    None-the-less it is rather like other Soviet bloc animation I’ve seen in that it seems to spend about twice as much time on half as many story points as an American film would.

    Still cool to see, though.

  • http://cargueconcuidado.blogspot.com x

    Ha, i saw this as a kid. I tought the spring scene was scary, having a few cuts from trying to fix my clockwork powered train.

  • http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/ Niffiwan

    @robcat2075, no years. The last attempt at jailing dissidents at the studio came with the country-wide fight against “cosmopolitans” in about 1949, as detailed in Kirill Malyantovich’s 1995 article in “Idish Gaz” magazine:
    http://www.kinozapiski.ru/article/822/

    Almost all of that died with Stalin, and the “socialist realism” that you talk about was dead by the 1960s. Something could be changed about a film, or at worst, the film could be withheld from release, but the director would keep his job and make more films, probably safer ones next time so that the public would see them. Moreover, animation became the field that Soviet artists escaped to if they found other artistic fields too stifling. This was the art to which probably the least bureaucratic attention was paid, with animators and directors largely left to their own devices and artistic councils. It was “for children” (or rather, two thirds of it was), therefore it was harmless and not to be taken seriously – ironically, this attitude inspired and allowed artists in that field to produce unusual, daring and serious works.

    By the way, there is quite an interesting dichotomy of opinion about this film among the Russian reviews I’ve read. People either love it or hate it, with most falling into the “love it” side. There seems to be no middle ground.

    “None-the-less it is rather like other Soviet bloc animation I’ve seen in that it seems to spend about twice as much time on half as many story points as an American film would.”

    Soviet animation varies widely. Try some of Aleksandr Tatarskiy’s films; they might be frenetic enough for you. Here’s one to start with:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=scve7JbhbH4

    But personally, I think that contemporary fast-forward culture might be reflected by the rise in ADHD cases. Teaching to think and reflect is no bad thing.

  • Brendan Spillane

    YELLOW SUBMARINE is my all-time favorite animated feature & this is one of many subsequent films that would expand upon its inventive visual design: the kind of thing that can only work in animation! Thanks again for posting!

  • http://2dwannabe.blogspot.com robcat2075

    I’m glad there was no gulag involved!

    I recall a news report in the 70′s of Soviet authorities closing an unapproved art exhibit… with a bulldozer. The post-Stalin enlightenment had some limits I guess. At least the artists could feel that someone was paying attention.

    My sense, after seeing a number of east European cartoons from that era, is that they were made with the expectation that no one was watching. Technically inventive sometimes, yet tryingly tedious. It’s possible that American festivals naturally chose just the tedious ones to show, or that only the tedious directors submitted their work to American festivals.

    But when “Worker & Parasite” came up on “The Simpsons” I knew I wasn’t the only one with this opinion.

  • Nicholas

    robcat, you are right that American animation is way more fast-paced, easygoing and light on the soul than Soviet or Eastern European animation, but I think it’s a matter of what you are used to.
    The slower paced, more heavy on illustration and less reliant on funny gags, Eastern European animation is often inspired by poetry, music, litherature, nature, fine arts, etc. and is meant for both children audiences and adults with similar cultural sensitivities. Since the commercial success wasn’t the ultimate goal, it was often treated a bit more like a visual poem rather than a joke and action packed moving comic book. It was often aspiring to have a strong emotional impact on the audience, and not necessarily make audience laugh a record number of times. Children who grew up on this animation often fall in love with characters for their unique subtle introvertive “round” personality and identifying with the way they relate to the world around them (not necessarily in this example), rather than adoring them for their loud dominating presence and exaggurrated antics. So the same way that you find the Eastern European animation too slow, overly tedious and heavy, somebody raised in different culture looks at most of the american animation as an annoying hyperactive soulless sugar candie in a brightly colored wrapper.

  • http://cargueconcuidado.blogspot.com x

    It is also interesting how different is the relation of the adults of today to theyr own pieces of animation from childhood in both “camps”. The eastern mood towards them is much warmer, as if they left a deeper impression on them as kids.
    Perhaps that’s not only because of the pieces per se, but because of the role they played in theyr daily life. But i still think Nicholas is right… Kids are in fact sensible to poetry.

  • http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/ Niffiwan

    @Nicholas “somebody raised in different culture looks at most of the american animation as an annoying hyperactive soulless sugar candie in a brightly colored wrapper.”

    *raises hand*

    Oh, certainly not ALL American animation, there are a good number that I love. But I remember not liking “Looney Tunes” very much when I first experienced it as a kid for basically the reason that the characters were not “real” to me; I could not believe in them. They broke the laws of physics, got sawed in half, even died, and were back the next frame as if nothing had happened. No consequences, no progression, the next scene always a reset button.

    This never happens in Soviet animation, no matter how modern the art direction is. If someone falls, they get hurt. If someone dies, that’s it. There are consequences to actions. Even the popular “Nu, pogodi!” series is like this, which is its main difference from “Tom and Jerry”, to which it is often compared.

    Maybe this explains (or is explained by) the never-ending American optimism for new beginnings. “The past is past”. Elect a new president and everything will be fixed… and after he does an awful job, believe the same thing about the next one. “I can stop any time I want to”, etc.

    @robcat2075, “I recall a news report in the 70’s of Soviet authorities closing an unapproved art exhibit… with a bulldozer.”

    Yep… work outside the artistic unions was discouraged. Though the society also supported artists and artworks that would have never been made in the West. Those exiled filmmakers and poets you hear about? Many would never have gotten bread to eat if they’d been living in a capitalist society and insisted on making that kind of artwork. Can you imagine Tarkovsky or Parajanov working at a Western studio? The censorship in the Soviet Union was simply more obvious; it was done by agents of the government rather than by an economic system that discouraged certain traits and encouraged others (i.e. making art that speaks to people who don’t have a lot of money is naturally discouraged by economic laws). Also, the great freedom and dynamism that the lack of copyrights (or more accurately, artistic monopolies) gave to the arts should not be underestimated. Without worrying about lawyers, negotiations, licensing fees, legal agreements, and the huge amount of time that this all takes, the best music could be used, the best and most popular stories adapted, the best artwork and techniques shared. Unless you stepped on some political toes, of course. Lose some freedoms, gain others.

    “My sense, after seeing a number of east European cartoons from that era, is that they were made with the expectation that no one was watching.”

    The domestic animation distribution network was actually pretty awe-inspiring, especially compared to today:
    http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/30683.html

    I think it’s very likely that the selection that was sent to Western festivals was not representative. A very small % of films was ever sent.

    To be honest, I am sick to death of how “Worker and Parasite” is all that most people know of Soviet animation. It’s akin to representing the whole Western art tradition by the sketches above bathroom urinals.

    Though it does resemble some animation made in Estonia:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O8UEQ2Yk8-E
    (I think there is much to like about the Estonian tradition, for the record – but the resemblance is there)

  • Nicholas

    Well, my love for many of the Eastern European cartoons and lack of it for the majority of the American ones has more to do with the characters. In many Eastern European films (not in this one, which I find unpleasant) the characters feel like charming, warm, imperfect, amusing, thinking and feeling creatures with a complex set of qualities that makes them a great companion. As a child I would love to have a creature like this for a friend. American characters always look like they are trying too hard to be entertaining, and I would prefer to keep away from somebody like that. They are egocentric, demanding, hyperactive, loud, over the top, in your face caricatures who might occasionally be funny but nobody in their right mind would want to spend any time with such a nuisance in real life. They look like they would be pulling your hair and screaming in your face and forcing you to do ridiculous things. So whether it’s the Incredibles or Duffy Duck, or Family Guy, I often watch them with mixed feelings of amusement and certain distaste, as one would watch a circus clown, kind of: do your tricks, some of them are funny, but please don’t get too close. So my point is that of course all is a matter of taste, but unlike what somebody said about having a sense that “Eastern European cartoons were made with the expectation that no one was watching”, they WERE made for an audience, but a different audience.

  • Brian Kidd

    I am in awe of this. The marvelous thing about blogs such as this one is that I am constantly reminded that I know very little about the animation world at large and its history. There has been a whole other world evolving separate from the one I’ve known and I’m just now able to partake of its riches.

    Is this available on DVD? I recently had the joy of buying the Russian version of Alice in Wonderland from Russcico and delighted in sharing it with my six-year-old son. This upload obviously came from a very nice source. I just wonder if it’s something that I can either find in the US or import from overseas.

    Thank you once again, Cartoon Brew, for bringing a little joy into my day.

  • http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/ Niffiwan

    @Brian Kidd, yes, this film was released in Russia on a 2008 DVD called “Сказка о царе Салтане. Сборник мультфильмов”. It can be bought in the U.S. here (PAL DVD without subtitles, though):

    http://www.russiandvd.com/store/product.asp?sku=956&genreid=&genresubid=

    The main “feature” of that DVD is Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s last film.

    If you’d like to read some more about Russian animation, please visit my blog. ;)

  • http://www.cementimental.com Tim Drage

    Niffiwan thanks for bringing all this great stuff to our attention!

    (…and for the internet’s most educational and polite reply to a really dumb trollish blog comment!)

    If I ran an cartoon blog i’d install a script to auto-ban anyone who mentions ‘worker and parasite’ in a thread on soviet animation :)

  • http://niffiwan.livejournal.com/ Niffiwan

    @Tim Drage, oh, I didn’t think that was a particularly trollish comment, it’s probably the mainstream view. The Simpsons is influential and Americans don’t travel much, so “Worker and Parasite” is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you say “Soviet animation” to them. A good way to counter that might be to point out that “The Snow Queen” was made in the Soviet Union.

    @Nicholas, I just read your last post… I really like your summary. I’m going to quote it with a bit of commentary…

  • Brian Kidd

    @Niffiwan Thanks so much for the link to the DVD! The Internet has made it so much easier to obtain things from overseas, hasn’t it? I plan on visiting your site often.

    From the minimal exposure to Russian animation I’ve had, I’m discovering that I love quite a bit of it. It reminds me of when I discovered the Film Board of Canada when I was a child and many of the animated shorts financed by them would show up between films on HBO. As a child who had only known Hanna Barbera, Disney, and WB, I was amazed at the wealth of animation from outside of the US! The wonderful thing is that I’m still discovering things decades later.

  • http://palais.wikidot.com Jordan S.

    The same director’s The Magic Flute, made about two decades later for the British TV series Operavox (which DVDs of are available in the UK, France and North America, though possibly not still in print in all those countries) which I’ve just discovered after watching and enjoying the above numerous times, has a very similar look, though more complex in terms of the backgrounds and drawings. I agree about the “synth and electro” soundtrack, though; the acoustic Mozart isn’t nearly so appropirate a fit for it.

    As is the rule with the S4C/Christmas Films collaborations, the films are by their nature not great ones, limited by having a source material forced upon them that is chosen for its fame rather than its suitability as a half-hour animated film, but have some great stuff within them that is allowed to reach an audience it otherwise wouldn’t. I still fondly remember the witches at the beginning of Nikolai Serebryakov’s Macbeth as being the first animation that interested me as animation, that it was how they moved that was so strange and interesting. And that led to me staying up to watch a documentary about Faith Hubley and so on from there.