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Down To The Woods: 50 Years Of Khitruk's Soviet Winnie The Pooh
Ian Wang , December 7th, 2019 11:26

A.A. Milne's beloved stories of a small round bear have been adopted around the world – but the Disney cartoon isn't the only screen counterpart worth remembering, finds Ian Wang

Picture Winnie-the-Pooh: you’re probably thinking of the portly, listless, honey-yellow bear from the Disney films. This version of Winnie, complete with his unmistakable red shirt, is instantly recognisable globally, treasured by generations who grew up on Saturday morning cartoons and branded pencil cases. But in Russia, the enduring image of Winnie is very different: a skittish, glassy-eyed, unsmiling ball of dark brown fur and existential confusion. This version of Winnie first debuted 50 years ago, in Fyodor Khitruk’s landmark 1969 short film, Винни-Пух (Vinni-Pukh).

Khitruk’s film (the first of a trilogy) was released in the same decade as the original Disney shorts, but took a radically different approach. Where the American Winnie is calm, slow-moving and dopey, the Soviet Vinni is hyperactive, constantly pacing and chattering to himself in a hoarse, monotone rasp. His songs are raucous, rapid-fire chants rather than sweet, serene melodies. Where the Disney films are soft and sentimental, Khitruk’s are wry, aloof, enigmatic; moments played for laughs in the former are imbued with a sense of genuine tragedy or bewilderment in the latter.

None of which is to say that Khitruk was consciously trying to be subversive – in fact, he hadn’t even seen the Disney films until after he had created his own version (although he did eventually say he was ‘not really satisfied’ with the American counterparts). Despite this, English-language coverage of Khitruk’s films has often centred on their comparatively ‘bizarre’ nature, which seems to reduce them to cliché, and ignores the fact that they are, in fact, deeply faithful to the original A.A. Milne stories. It also overlooks the films’ widespread popular appeal across the former Soviet Union - Vinni has appeared on postage stamps, train cars and public monuments, and just one version of the films on YouTube has over 70 million views.

One reason that the films might seem strange on the surface is that they refuse to paper over the aspects of children’s experience which are themselves surreal, curious, off-putting. Where Disney offers a romantic vision of childhood, Khitruk’s vision is much more unkempt - and perhaps more accurate. There is no chirping, pastoral soundtrack or melodious voice acting with Khitruk. Instead of neat, meticulously-crafted cel backgrounds, he depicts the Hundred Acre Wood as a patchwork of ragged, splotchy scribblings like you might find in a child’s colouring book.

Perhaps most importantly, Khitruk entirely removed the character of Christopher Robin. He sought to erase the suggestion, found both in the Disney films and in Milne’s stories, that, in reality, Winnie is just a stuffed animal whose adventures take place only in the imagination of Robin, a real boy. Robin, in Khitruk’s words, ‘only underscored that there are people, and there are little animals or toys’. By removing him from the story, Khitruk dissolves the barrier between children and their playthings, and hence also between fantasy and reality - a barrier which, for many children, simply isn’t there. The Vinni-Pukh films do not try to shape childhood into what adults believe it should be. Rather, they present childhood as it is experienced by children themselves.

What Khitruk was doing offered a striking departure from the traditions of the Soviet Union’s state-controlled animation industry. In the first half of the twentieth century, animators at Soyuzmultfilm, the state animation studio, faced an unusual conundrum. On the one hand, they were expected to infuse their films with elements of didactic socialist realism. Animation was overwhelmingly targeted at children - Soyuzmultfilm (‘Union Cartoons’) used to be called Soyuzdetfilm (‘Union Children’s Cartoons’) - who needed to be raised with the right ideological lessons. On the other hand, perhaps ironically, they were expected to model their animation style after that of Walt Disney, whose work was admired by Eisenstein and Stalin alike despite his decidedly anti-communist leanings. The result was a disorienting blend of anti-Western propaganda delivered through Western-inspired visuals.

Khitruk broke away from that tradition. Although Disney certainly influenced him too - he was inspired to become an animator after seeing Three Little Pigs - when it came to his own work, he sought to carve out a unique niche. His debut film in 1962, The Story of a Crime was released in the midst of the Khrushchev Thaw, a period of liberalisation in Soviet arts and culture spurred by Nikita Khrushchev’s programme of de-Stalinization. Far from an ersatz Disney knockoff, The Story of a Crime boasts highly stylised imagery. Its colourful, sharp geometry was more reminiscent of the films of Disney rival UPA, itself an innovative breakaway studio which pushed against the reliance on realism in animation. Nor did Khitruk stick to just one style - each of his films has a unique visual language, from the handwritten scrawlings of The Young Friedrich Engels, the lavish picture frames of Man in the Frame, and, of course, Vinni-Pukh, with its wild storybook aesthetic.

Khitruk was just one of many innovators at Soyuzmultfilm, whose alumni also include Hedgehog in the Fog animator Yuri Norstein. In fact, from the very beginning the animation studio was a hub for artistic experimentation. Those who had been shunned from other fields for creating art that was too avant-garde, too politically contentious, too Jewish (Khitruk and Norstein were both Jews), often found a safe haven at Soyuzmultfilm. One reason for this was that animation, as well as other children’s entertainment forms such as puppet theatre, was subject to less stringent regulation from state censors. Overt dissent was still banned, but more subtle messages could slip under the radar. For example, another popular Soyuzmultfilm character is Cheburashka, a half-orange, half-bear who is ostracised for defying social classification, and whose experiences double as a fitting metaphor for the marginalisation of Russian Jews.

It is this long lineage of boundary-pushing creativity which informs the strange beauty of Vinni-Pukh. The band of artistic rebels and exiles who congregated in the Soyuzmultfilm offices gave rise to a new wave of animated films which were willing to break from Disneyfied visual cliches, and to eschew didacticism in favour of a more honest and complex expression of childhood. During one of Vinni’s more memorable moments, he hears a buzzing noise and supposes such a sound could only exist because of bees - then he wonders why bees exist at all. It’s an amusing moment (Vinni eventually concludes bees exist solely to make honey for him to eat), but it is also a genuinely puzzling one. Instead of dismissing Vinni’s ponderings as a frivolous, childlike digression, Khitruk listens with an attentive ear. He celebrates children’s surprising capacity for insight rather than talking down to them. Even 50 years on, this remains a refreshing approach to children’s entertainment, and it is an encouraging reminder that you don’t need flashy CGI or toilet humour to appeal to younger viewers. Sometimes, you just need to take them seriously.

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