European fairy tales are definitely a special genre unto themselves. Where Mexican and American productions of familiar stories like LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD, JACK AND THE BEANSTALK and TOM THUMB result in cheesy cult favorites, film studios in Germany, Russia, France and Finland unleashed a series of gorgeous visual works for their children. Paired here in one of Retromedia's latest drive-in double features are two Eastern European children’s films acquired and released by AIP/Filmgroup in the U.S. and promoted as science-fiction/horror epics. Both features found a new life through lampooned versions on "Mystery Science Theater 3000," and even though the dubbed dialogue is pretty ridiculous and the stories are made incomprehensible, they still have a visual flair which sets them apart from other films of their type.
On the first side of this double-sided disc is the Russian wonder THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD. Handsome sailor Sinbad (or Sadko in the original version) returns to his hometown to discover that the government of his city has fallen prey to oppression and corruption. He sets forth on a quest to find a golden bird of happiness to save his village from poverty, with an army of anxious soldiers tagging along.
Director Aleksandr Ptushko was the first and foremost director of fantasy films for children in Russia. His best films (ILYA MUROMETS, SAMPO, SADKO) were all released in the United States in bastardized versions (THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON, THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE and THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD, respectively). It's interesting to think that during the Cold War, Commie films were being imported for white-bread American children, but when one sees the films, it's not really surprising. They were shot in color, are visually stimulating and most importantly, a lot of fun to spend an afternoon with.
With the case of THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD, it's sort of tough to follow in its Anglicized version. The pacing is slow and it takes a while for anything to really happen in the film, but the threadbare plot has a number of unique setpieces to keep audiences interested. Sinbad sings on the banks of a river and sees a beautiful princess emerge from the water and float ashore to hear him croon, an adventurous villager gets into a fight with a real bear (!), Sinbad catches a beautiful fish with red rays of light shooting from its scales, a seaside battle with an army of villains, a maniacally laughing horse, a showdown in the streets of India, a visit to an undersea kingdom with a bickering king and queen, and several unique dance sequences which stop the movie in its tracks. And just wait until you see the imposter "bird of happiness," a blue harpy with a human head who lulls men to sleep (she looks like Tura Satana)!!
Francis Ford Coppola is credited as "script adaptor" for the U.S. version, which means he was probably in charge of editing and re-scripting the film for consumption by American youngsters. He didn't do a very good job, as the film's storyline is muddled beyond belief at times, but it all still looks superb. Awash with gorgeous sets and locales, colorful costumes and swooping cinematography, this is one of the most unique fantasy films ever made and will definitely surprise newcomers to Russian cinema.
As much of a marvel THE MAGIC VOYAGE OF SINBAD is, the transfer leaves a lot to be desired. Obviously taken from a 16mm print, the colors have all faded and bled together and the whole film has an aura of orange-yellow permeating every frame, with greenish hues appearing on faces now and again. The original untampered-with version, under its original title SADKO, has been released on DVD through Ruscico and Image Entertainment and apparently is quite stunning in its color restoration, so those who enjoyed the film here should definitely seek out the original version through that release. Some moments display nice color, such as the deep blue eyes and full red lips of Sinbad's romantic interest.
Moving on to the flipside of the disc, there lies an imaginative folk story behind a misleading sci-fi title. THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE at least doesn't cheat the audience, as the world does go into a deep freeze near the climax, but the story revolves around a devious witch who lives in a mountain with her elf slaves. She is desperate for a mythical machine called a sampo, which produces wealth and riches for its owner (and the original title of the film). A young woodsman has the ability to make one, so the sorceress kidnaps his lovely sister and forces him to assist her. With the help of her boyfriend, the pair make a sampo but race back to their village with both the device and the girl in tow. Not taking to treachery lightly, the witch steals the sun away from the sky and transforms into a frosty winter wonderland.
Once again, in the translation from Russian to English for U.S. audiences, the storyline is hard to follow at times, but the visual style of the film and its approach to traditional European storytelling makes it a gem of a film. The witch sends her black cloak to attach itself to the heroine's boat and whisk her back to the dark mountain, a field of snakes provides trouble for the men, a fiery horse is welded to blazing life, a room of giant bags contain the bellowing voices of the winds of the earth, and a village throws a wild dancing party at the return of the girl and her rescuers. Even apparent throwaway scenes like the young girl surrounded by animal friends of the forest and the men creating a boat out of a giant tree are poetically beautiful and pay off when one of her prized pets perishes in the blizzard following the sun's disappearance.
There is an interesting preface to the story, with a narrator introducing the Finnish fairy tale writer who created the story the film was based on (accompanied by a cool shot of statues of the man opening a book to read it!). Packed with gorgeous countryside footage, inventive special effects, some nice gel lighting, and a superb fairy tale atmosphere, this is a wonderful children’s' film which is slightly better than MAGIC VOYAGE and is never boring. It's kind of dark for really young children, but it's unlike any other fairy tale film they'll ever see.
The 16mm print for THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE is a different one from the familiar P.D. print, which opened with credits on a black screen. This one has credits over shots of ice and features a new Retromedia copyright credit under the title. The colors aren't as bold or loud as its co-feature, or at least you can't tell from this transfer. The image is bright for the most part, with some dark spots during night scenes, with green spots, some print jumps and uneven skin tones. The English track is nice and loud, allowing the viewers to appreciate the gravelly dubbed voice of the evil witch!
Extras are limited to a stills gallery with posters and lobby cards for the two films (some very nice images in here) and a black-and-white trailer for the color THE DAY THE EARTH FROZE.
With two very special Russian fairy tales paired together in decent transfers, this is a hard package to pass up! Highly recommended! (Casey Scott)
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