The Snow Queen (Snezhnaya Koroleva, 1957)
If you don't have any friends who grew up in a Soviet Republic, I recommend you borrow one if you want to get the most out of The Snow Queen, a full-length animated Russian cartoon directed by Lev Atamanov. Not that there isn't plenty of excellence in the English-dubbed version, it's just more fun to hear the exasperated sighs of a person who grew up on the original sitting next to you.
A few years ago, my friend Daniya (author of the Transplanted Tatar travel blog) treated me to a live translation of the un-dubbed Russian cartoon, Mowgli, the Soviet rendition of The Jungle Book, and one her childhood favorites. The film reminded me instantly of one of my childhood favorites, The Snow Queen, which used to air around Christmas-time with a live action introduction by Art Linkletter and some of the darnedest kids. I mentioned as much to Daniya and she started saying a bunch of stuff in Russian and English that boiled down to both films being products of Soyuzmultfilm, one of the largest animation studios in the Soviet Union, and that there was no live sequence, what was I talking about?
This was news to me! You couldn't get more American than Sandra Dee, Tommy Kirk, and Art Linkletter -- plus Christmas. So naturally, when it came time to review The Snow Queen for this blogathon, I watched first the Russian, then the English version with bonus Tatar commentary (Daniya's). Turns out they align about 85% of the time, with some notable differences.
The story is introduced by a little man called "Ole Lukoje," a creation of Hans Christian Andersen, a god who is a mix of both the Sandman and Santa Claus: he carries two umbrellas and visits little children in the night, spreading the colorful umbrella over the good kids, so that they will have wonderful dreams; and the dark umbrella over the naughty children, so that they sleep so soundly they will have no dreams at all.* Ole Lukoje tells us a little bit about Andersen, a little bit about Denmark, and promises that after this story, there will be more fairy tales to come. But first, the Snow Queen...
In English, Ole Lukoje becomes "Old Dreamy," a guy who helps Hans Christian Andersen dream up fanciful stories with the colorful umbrella and helps him get much needed, dreamless sleep with the dark one. Nothing about kids. And now, the Snow Queen...
Two friends, Gerda (Sandra Dee) and Kay (voiced by Tommy Kirk and pronounced Kai in the Soviet version, like the guy from Marketplace; and Kay in the English, like one of the Mothers-in-Law) are playing on the terrace that joins their two houses. They plant two roses, one red and one white, in a single pot to symbolize their friendship. Later in the year on a wintry night, the two children are listening to Gerda's grandmother tell the story of the Snow Queen, a beautiful, icy-hearted woman who lives in a frozen castle far away. As the wind and snow whip against the window, Gerda sees in it the face of a beautiful, icy-hearted woman and screams that it's the queen!! Kay comforts her by telling her that if the Snow Queen did come, he'd just put her on the fire, that dumb old queen. Of course, it was the Snow Queen listening at the window by magic and she, at her castle, breaks a mirror with her scepter and commands the pieces to fly all over the world and pierce the eyes and hearts of all who mock her. At that moment, a gust of wind blows the window open and splinters of ice fly into Kay's eye and heart -- it also breaks the flower pot containing their two roses and kills them.
Kay immediately turns into a cold bully and starts making fun of Gerda for being sad about the flowers, stomps on them, and leaves, laughing at her tears. The next day, Kay continues to be a mean jackass and deliberately makes Gerda fall off a sled just to see if she'll cry. The Snow Queen suddenly appears in her horse-drawn sleigh, Kay climbs in, and the two ride off to points north. Everything freezes in their wake, including a mother bird, who dies protecting her three hatchlings.
Gerda, terribly worried and afraid for her friend, goes off in search of him. The rest of the film is about her journey. She offers her new red shoes to the river in exchange for a boat ride that will take her to a friendly witch's house. The witch takes Gerda in, but lulls her to sleep, hoping she will stay and forget about Kay. When Gerda wakes, she learns that it is autumn already and escapes while the witch sleeps. She then meets a raven and his "lady friend" who tell her that a boy matching Kay's description is living with a princess up at the castle. When it turns out the boy is some other blond kid, that boy and the princess decide to help Gerda by giving her some winter gear (including some sorely needed shoes), a fine coach, and some coachmen.
Unfortunately, the coach is set upon by a gang of thieves led by a crone and her inexplicably young daughter (played in English by Patty McCormack). The young thief-girl asks her mother if she can keep Gerda as one of her many pets, which include a fox, a bunch of rabbits, three birds, and a beautiful reindeer buck. As Gerda tells her story to the thief-girl, the birds say, hey, I think we saw that guy when the Snow Queen killed our mother last spring. Moved by the story, the thief-girl not only lets Gerda go, she also sets the other animals free, knowing they will all run off and leave her lonely. But most of the animals stay, feeling sorry for the girl. None of them eat each other. The buck says he will take Gerda to Lapland, where the birds said Kay was headed.
In Lapland, they meet a woman who tells them the Snow Queen had been there, but went ahead to Finland. As Gerda and the reindeer rest and warm by the fire, the Laplander writes a note on a fish for Gerda to give to a friend in Finland who will help her. In Finland, and with the help of the fish note, they learn that the Snow Queen is just a few miles away. At this news, Gerda and the reindeer run off so fast that Gerda leaves without her coat and mittens. The buck wears out and collapses, so Gerda, treks off by herself.
When she reaches the castle, she finds Kay in the throne room methodically making shapes out of ice. Gerda runs to him and hugs him tight. The warmth of her embrace melts the ice in his eye and heart and the two run off together, retracing Gerda's steps and getting help from all the people she met along the way until they finally get home. The Snow Queen and her palace, in something of an anti-climax, melt away with spring.
In Russian, Gerda and Kay go back to being friends; in English, Old Dreamy makes a point of telling us they were later married,** which, along with other English-only references to Kay being Gerda's boyfriend, Daniya found outrageous. I argued that the American version only made overt what the Russian one implied -- we are not a subtle nation -- and I agree that the gratuitous coupling of opposite-sex children (or robots, even***) in animation is wearying. But if Frozen, The Snow Queen's direct descendant, was groundbreaking in its message of true love, it has brave little Gerda to thank.
* Two things: 1) when I first heard "god," I said there's no way the Christmas special version is going to translate that literally (I was right); and 2) why wouldn't Ole Lukoje give naughty kids horrible nightmares like a proper Old World fairy tale creature ought? I mean, where do nightmares come from, then?!
** For the record, my son took one look at these two blond white kids and asked if they were brother in sister. Eye of the beholder.
*** did there really need to be a romance between EVE and WALL-E, because one robot was a "girl" and the other a "boy?"
Scenes from THE SNOW QUEEN (1957)
I'll do just about anything a movie tells me to do. Unless it tells me wrong...
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