New to the Site? Click Here for a Primer!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Obscusion B-Side: Fehérlófia: Wait, They WEREN'T Snorting Paprika During Production?!

I conceived The Land of Obscusion to be a place where I can help bring to light titles that have either become forgotten with the passage of time or were never truly given that opportunity in the first place. Though anime & manga was & will still remain the major focus, I wanted to grow & have the potential to showcase more, not just expanding my own personal horizons but also share those new experiences with you, my readers; that is why I introduced Obscusion B-Side with the fourth anniversary post. I am leading with this because this review is as different from anything else I've done on the blog. For the first time, The Land of Obscusion is leaving Japan entirely for a post. Do I still have anybody reading? If so, then maybe you're wondering where I'm going with this, and here's the answer: Hungary.

So why Hungary? Simply put, it's my heritage. My parents both came from Soviet-occupied Hungary, and my lineage is nearly 100% Hungarian. While I am, admittedly, not a completely fluent speaker, though I can hold my own if push comes to shove, I do understand the language due to me being around Hungarian school & culture growing up. In fact, I think being mostly comfortable with the Hungarian language has helped me in getting used to Japanese in some ways. For example, both are languages that are notorious for being hard to learn, both utilize sentence structure that are not familiar to Indo-European languages like English (Japanese due to subject-object-verb structure, Hungarian due to a semi-free form structure based on intonation), & both utilize Eastern order naming (i.e. last name first). In fact, Hungary is the only European country to use that naming style, which makes Hungarian dubs of anime always accurate to Japanese names. In fact, Hungary does have a growing anime & manga fanbase & actually had its own Animax network from 2007-2014. The country does also have its own animation industry, though most of it never leaves the country. The title I'll be reviewing, mainly because last week (March 15, to be exact) was one of two National Days the country celebrates (this one being in honor of the 1848 Revolution against the Habsburg monarchy), is one of those products that hasn't left Hungary but is looked at as one of its finest. Fitting, then, that it's a movie from the man who has been called "The Walt Disney of Hungary".

Fehérlófia/Son of the White Mare, pronounced "Feh-hair-low-fee-uh", was in production from 1979-1981 & is the second film from Marcell Jankovics, whose work people may (unknowingly) be familiar with via a 2008 Super Bowl ad for the GMC Yukon Hybrid, as the ad utilized Jankovics' 1974 short film Sisyphus, which he earned an Oscar nomination for; he also helped work on pre-production for Disney's The Emperor's New GrooveFehérlófia remained mostly known only to Hungarians until 2011, when Jankovics finally finished his animated adaptation of Imre Madách's play The Tragedy of Man after more than 20 years of production; Fehérlófia was apparently given a little new life & recognition at that time. Since it still remains exclusive to its homeland, though, I want to see what exactly the rest of the world is missing out on. Also, I'm sadly a neophyte when it comes to Hungarian media, so I should rectify that, even if only in the smallest of ways.

Long ago, the Forefather of the World & his Queen ruled alongside their three princes, who protected the locks that kept the dragons of the Underworld sealed away. One day, the princes asked their father for wives, which he granted, and they all lived happily ever after... Until the princes died. The princesses, curious about what their husbands protected, did away with the locks & unleashed the dragons onto the world. The dragons removed the power of the Forefather, leaving him helpless, and three of them in particular took the princesses for themselves & went back to the Underworld. In his last efforts, the Forefather impregnated a captured white mare, who gave birth to new children slowly at a time. When the third child was ready the mare escaped, hiding inside the World Tree. This last son, Treeshaker, grows up powerful enough to lift the World Tree from its roots & decides to find his two brothers, Stonecrumbler & Ironkneader, make his way into the Underworld, & rescue the princesses.

Based on the work of László Arany, as well as Hunnic & Avaric legends (the tribes of which the movie dedicates itself to), Fehérlófia is by far as nontraditional as can be thought. Going off of that synopsis, the traditional way the movie would tell that story would be to introduce the main characters, i.e. the brothers, followed by the majority of the movie being their battles in the Underworld against the dragons. While this movie does do that to an extent, it's pacing is nowhere near what one would normally expect. You see, this movie takes its time, and for a roughly 90-minute movie that's something. It takes about 20 minutes to even get past Treeshaker finally being strong enough to lift the World Tree, and it's only when the second half starts that anyone even goes into the Underworld. The first half is, more or less, meant to establish the backstory, introduce Treeshaker, & showcase some old fairy tale storytelling with the three brothers. In that regard the first half is really enjoyable. Little Treeshaker is endearing, & the three brothers showcase a little bit of Stooges-style comedy. By that I mean Stonecrumbler is the easiest to agitate & weakest, but probably the silliest & most entertaining to watch, Ironkneader comes off as brave & willing, but still has his limits, & Treeshaker is the natural leader & strongest of them all. In fact, if anything, Treeshaker is a little too perfect in that regard. When a little goblin messes with the brothers only Treeshaker is able to take him out, when they finally find the hold to the Underworld only Treeshaker is brave enough to make it all the way down and, when you think about it, only Treeshaker is really important in the entire story; his brothers become essentially forgotten for most of the second half. I wouldn't say he's annoyingly perfect, but he does approach it.

The second half of the movie also twists about your expectations somewhat. For example, when you expect the battles with the dragons to be epic fights, they instead are done with pretty quickly & a fair bit one-sidedly. In comparison to the first half, where everything was handled at its own pace, the second half is in constant motion, even approaching repetitive come the final dragon since it's always "Treeshaker commands castle to stop spinning, princess points out how hopeless it is to fight the dragon, dragon eats his dinner, & then the two battle." Thankfully, the last dragon mixes things up a bit by forgoing the hopelessness & eating, and luckily there are only three dragons to take on, as the legend itself mentions there being 77 dragons in total. After all of that, however, is one last bit of story where Treeshaker has to find a way back to the surface after being unable to return the way he came, and while it does feel a little like padding it still keeps the ending from coming too immediately. As for the ending, it is overall a happy ending, though altered somewhat from Arany's story, but there is a hint at the very end that the story will simply repeat itself, making everything feel a little bittersweet.

Therefore, if the story has those flawed bits, what's the major appeal in seeing it? Quite simply, it's because of the visuals & overall execution. Truly, Fehérlófia is an amazing film visually, so much so that it still looks one-of-a-kind, even 34 years later. The general term I've read describing it is "psychedelic", and that is easily the best way to describe it. There's a heavy use of pastel colors that makes it look unlike your usual animated feature, regardless of nation, & the movie heavily pushes the stark difference between bright pastels & dark blacks to help give everyone & everything shape & style. The movie can look haunting, playful, abstract, drab, or colorful, or even any mix of them all, at any point, and one can simply pause the film at any time & end up with an image that's worthy of framing. The movie is also insane with its transitions, utilizing morphing shapes & color shifting almost as much as it uses normal transitions like fading out. This constant movement & super-artistic style can sometimes overwhelm the senses, like in Felix the Cat: The Movie (which was done by the same studio as Fehérlófia, Pannonia Film Studio), but here it's done extremely well, and I think that's mainly due to the director & his sheer skill.

Marcell Jankovics might be compared to Walk Disney, but I think that comparison is only due to the notoriety each has in their respective home countries. Whereas both directors are/were known for sheer majestic visuals, I think the only time Disney ever went in the same style of execution Jankovics did was in Fantasia back in 1940, 41 years before this film (maybe it was an inspiration?). While Disney was never able to truly continue in that direction, as he was stymied by things like profits & audience reception, Jankovics & Pannonia were supported by the Hungarian government, which itself was controlled by the Soviets... So I guess one could argue that we can thank the U.S.S.R. for this movie, as well as Jankovics being able to continue making movies his way. While the plot & storytelling in the movie may be more or less predictable, it's the way this story is showcased that makes Fehérlófia worth watching.. Well, that & the fact that this film's characters look like they were conceived by people who snorted paprika. I'm sure that would alter you mind enough to conceive the stuff you see in this movie.

Yeah... That looks like a dragon, right?

Seriously, the only character that actually looks exactly as you would think is the white mare. Treeshaker & his brothers tend to look human-esque, but not much more than that, and the princesses at least look nice & varied; one of them even prefers to walk around completely nude, breasts & bush galore. The craziest of them all, however, are the dragons, which look nothing any dragon I've ever seen. The three-headed dragon is the simplest of them all, looking like a giant stone golem, but that's only the tip of the iceberg. The seven-headed dragon is like a fusion of a WWII-era tank & a gun-laden dreadnought, even being able to launch a gigantic bomb from miles away. Finally, the twelve-headed dragon is huge, lumbering metropolis, looking as if the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey self-replicated & had a dot-matrix display that could appear on its many faces to talk with. There's also a giant griffin at the end that sometimes looks like the mythical creature but otherwise looks completely different, simply because of its coloration & moon-like face.

Even the music is completely nontraditional in use. Composed by István Vajda, the actual soundtrack to Fehérlófia is filled more with ambient-like sounds & chords, with very little in the way of melodies. Even the first thing you hear in the movie, the main theme, sounds like traditional music, but upon a quick second listen you'll realize that there actually isn't much in terms of a beat or rhythm to it. That's not to say that what you get here is poor, though, as it does an amazing job with setting up the mood of every scene the soundtrack is used in. Much like visuals by Jankovics & cinematographer Zoltán Bacsó, Vajda's music is more about the feeling & emotion than it is about actually making sense & coming off as your usual fare. I'll refrain from going into the voice work in detail, mainly because the cast is only going to be known to the Hungarian populace, but overall it's very solid. The brothers all perform like they were conversing naturally, as if they weren't acting, while the dragons, Forefather, & princesses perform more to their characters. There's a natural cadence to conversing in Hungarian that I'm personally used to, obviously, but I think it helps give the language a style that's all its own; if you get the chance, listen to some Hungarian & hear how it sounds.

When it comes to Hungarian animation, there are only a few that are generally remembered by people around the world, with the top two being Vuk: The Little Fox & Cat City. In Hungary, however, the work of Marcell Jankovics is apparently considered some of the absolute greatest, and Fehérlófia is a great showcase of that notoriety. While the concept & basic idea of the movie may be your traditional fare, though given some Eastern European flair, the actual execution & visual style is absolutely insane in all the right ways. Even now there's almost nothing that looks quite like this film, and the designs the characters have are simplistically genius. This is very much an avant garde film, and I think the reason why it was called one of the 50 Greatest Animated Films Ever back in 1984 (from the blub at the bottom of the DVD cover above) is because of its amazing visual execution & how it turns a somewhat traditional folk tale into something completely different. Unfortunately, this film has never left Hungary, or at least it never came to North America, so the only option legally is to import the DVD, which sadly doesn't have any English translation. For those who wish to see this film with English subtitles, though, there are two uploads of it over at YouTube; one uses hard-encoded subs & is split across eight parts, while the other is a single video that uses the player's captions feature. If you have a hankering for something completely different, but still animated, then by all means check this movie out.

We now return you to your regularly(?) scheduled anime posts.


  1. Still, I wouldn't mind coming back to Hungary again! I'm also familiar with Jankovics' work and that of Pannonia Film.

    "When it comes to Hungarian animation, there are only a few that are generally remembered by people around the world, with the top two being Vuk: The Little Fox & Cat City."

    The only other two I can think of is "Hugo the Hippo" (pretty dated, musical kiddie crap that was technically an American film but animated in Hungary), and "The Seventh Brother" (there's quite a few fans of this I noticed online). As a kid, I use to watch these ones on cable TV called "A Kockásfülű nyúl" though back then we never knew these were Hungarian as they never showed the credits and all that so we called it "Bunny in a Suitcase".

    This was my favorite short I saw when I was 4!

    1. To be honest, before seeing this film my only real familiarity with Hungarian animation was from back when I was a kid. I was shown a couple of episodes of Hungarian Folktales (which Pannonia made & Jankovics was involved in at times), and I do remember seeing Vuk: The Little Fox but never finishing it. I actually didn't even know of Cat City or Hugo the Hippo until I looked into research regarding the movie I saw.

      As for returning to Hungarian animation, I might do it again, but not anytime soon. At the very least, the next national holiday isn't for a good while...

    2. To be honest, before seeing this film my only real familiarity with Hungarian animation was from back when I was a kid. I was shown a couple of episodes of Hungarian Folktales (which Pannonia made & Jankovics was involved in at times),

      Never saw those, though I do see several episodes once popped up on a PBS series called "Long Ago & Far Away"...

      Many of Pannonia's animated features did see English-dubbed releases, often done in the UK, Canada or the US, though they do vary in quality.

      and I do remember seeing Vuk: The Little Fox but never finishing it.

      That happened to me too! For me, I first saw it as it was aired on Nickelodeon in 1987 as part of it's "Special Delivery" program they played every weekend afternoon. Basically the Nickelodeon I use to watch back then had to occupy a channel the local cable operator used or other purposes and on that day Nick happened to air "The Little Fox", the cable company had to cut into the broadcast at a critical point (I think when Vuk was running through a field to distract a hunter) to show a televised baseball came (probably the Tigers or Indians as we live between both Detroit and Cleveland). It was so floored I had to wait probably another year before I could see it again to see how it ended (and as I figured out, life goes on). For the time the film came out, it was quite a stark contrast over Disney's "Fox & The Hound" in terms of the character's life journey for survival. The English dub, while obviously choosing to anglicize the names (Fido, Rover, Vic) and other cultural differences still told a pretty accurate tale I felt, and it was uncut when it aired on TV as well though subsequent VHS releases over here were either uncut or edited (namely cutting out stuff like the duck's head with the boney stem sticking out or when Karak finally dies with Vuk cursing the moon).

      I actually didn't even know of Cat City or Hugo the Hippo until I looked into research regarding the movie I saw.

      The more you know! I didn't even know about Hugo at all until Jerry Beck or someone else I know talked of it. Real kiddie matinee fodder there.

      As for returning to Hungarian animation, I might do it again, but not anytime soon. At the very least, the next national holiday isn't for a good while...

      I bet.