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“In my animated films the design of every frame is of great importance, as if it would be a painting. Most of the time, and particularly in a mythical, fabulous context, my human characters, even lead characters, are only a minor part of the whole thing.” —Marcell Jankovics
DIRECTED BY: Marcell Jankovics
FEATURING: Voices of György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Mari Szemes, Szabolcs Tóth
PLOT: Fleeing hunters in a forest, a pregnant white mare takes refuge in a knot of the World Tree. For seven years plus seven she feeds her son, Treeshaker, before he embarks on a quest to destroy the three dragons that have captured the three princesses of the kingdom. Joined by his brothers Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, he seeks the entrance to the Underworld in order to battle the monsters.
- The narrative takes its inspiration from around half-a-dozen variations of a folk legend (which itself exists in over fifty forms). The canonical version is “Fehérlófia” as related by the Hungarian poet László Arany, though Jankovics’ rendition often departs from this source.
- Jankovics’ decision to adopt an experimental animation style proved to be a double-edged sword. The film’s singular appearance grew famous only after years of word-of-mouth percolation; it was unmarketable at the time of its release, and Jankovics found only fleeting acclaim (and no work whatsoever) outside of his native Hungary.
- Jankovics discounts any assertions about having taken psychedelics, claiming instead he merely wished to respect the fantastical grandeur of the source material.
- The titular White Mare takes on a warm, pinkish glow when near her son. This tonal effect was lost until the film’s recent restoration, the mare having appeared simply white in earlier washed-out prints.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Treeshaker striding confidently behind row upon row of modern buildings in silhouette as a horrible brown smog obscures the scene: a mythical hero boldly facing modernity.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Bubble-beard gnome; twelve-headed skyscraper monster
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It might be impossible to find another feature-length animation that is simultaneously so stylized while feeling so organic, or with such vibrant colors telling so heroic a tale. Every cel is a stunning piece of art that seamlessly morphs into the next jaw-dropper. The curious source material lends a further twist: ancient Central European folklore channeled through a 20th-century animator toiling behind the Iron Curtain.
Re-release trailer for Son of the White Mare
COMMENTS: Marcell Jankovics’ introductory dedication declares Son of the White Mare to be “in memory of the Scythians, Huns, Avars, and other nomadic peoples.” This is an ancient story, its far-flung roots buried deep within Eurasian proto-history and within the subconscious of the descendants of innumerable tribes. As such, it couples universality with eternality, and its epic subject matter allowed Jankovics, a citizen of Hungary during its Soviet vassalhood, more freedom than he might otherwise have had. For indeed, what could the censors have against an ancient legend told in the form of a cartoon?
Plenty, it would seem. As with the folktales themselves, Son of the White Mare has a cyclical nature, with ambiguous time-stretches and cause leading to effect leading back to cause. The original title (The Tree Without a Top) troubled the commissars from the get-go, as its reference to the World Tree characterized time as a circle, not the strict linearity insisted upon by Marxist dogma. The story begins with a flash of evil lightning, and dark, angled branches menacing a fleeing white mare. Escaping into an egg-yolk-yellow orb aperture, she finds safety, births a son, and soon tells him the story of an ancient king and queen, who had three sons who demanded their own land, castles, and wives. The kingdom was split into three, with each son ruling a section, and explicitly forbidden to investigate any of the locked castles. The wives grow curious, however, and when they spring the locks, three horrible dragons are unleashed, and a mighty serpent of crimson and chains captures the old king, and nearly captures the white mare. Time loops back upon itself in the story told to the young boy; once grown into Treeshaker, he is able lift the World Tree itself and shake the very world upon which he stands.
The structure of Son of the White Mare will be familiar to anyone with even a cursory interest in epic poetry, folklore, and fairy tales. The number three crops up throughout: Treeshaker has two brothers: Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer. All are impossibly strong, with Treeshaker being the most impossibly strong. They also bear more than a passing resemblance to the old king’s three sons. They endure three encounters with the Seven-Colored Gnome, a trickster whose beard gives him an unholy strength. And once in the Underworld, Treeshaker visits three rotating castles, the homes of the three evil dragons, to rescue three princesses.
The source material is as lofty as it is ancient—it is, effectively, a kind of creation myth—but you can’t get mileage out of something that’s all heroics, trials, and tedium. Recognizing the need for humor, Jankovics employs sight gags throughout. Just before Stonecrumbler introduces Treeshaker to his brother, the “camera” gives the mountain-crushing man a close-up. He mugs to the audience with a wink before sneaking up on Irontemperer, who is deeply focused on forging. With a tip-toe and a shout of, “God Bless you!,” the forger bolts upright in surprise, giving his sneaky brother a good slapstick thwack in the process. Later, while tasked with cooking while his brothers search for the Underworld, Stonecrumbler is overpowered by a porridge-ravenous gnome, and is then spanked for having seemingly eaten all the food. (This same fate befalls Irontemperer when, the next day, he too fails to subdue the gnome.) Humor humanizes these godlike men, as when Treeshaker encounters the Underworld’s spinning castles with a mighty, “If you don’t stop spinning, I will destroy you!” Not only can you practically hear the word “bitch” after each declaration, but by Treeshaker’s third go-around he mutters, “I’m getting tired of this.”
All this focus on the narrative may give the appearance of avoiding Son of the White Mare‘s primary achievement. It is—because the visuals flirt with indescribability. The beautiful, simple colors fuse together in a stylized, organic metamorphosis that evolves seamlessly from one image to the next. The three-headed stone dragon shifts his boulders mightily in combat as his heads stack and collapse on each other; the six-headed armaments dragon crashes malevolently on its caterpillar tracks as it charges toward Treeshaker, who hides beneath the ground in an animated slight-of-hand; and the twelve-headed dragon is a towering mass of skyscrapers whose faces shuffle from building-top to building-top, its mouths mimicking early computer graphics. It’s this collision of storytelling from time immemorial, artistic vision, and, yes, social commentary that makes Son of the White Mare both such a spectacle to behold now and made it such a commercial flop when first released. But as any fan of fairy tales knows, time always cycles back around. Forty years after first hitting the cinema, Son of the White Mare’s time has come once more, bringing its vivacity and humanity to the eyes and ears of myth lovers everywhere.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s baffling to think that the 1981 Hungarian film Son of the White Mare is just now making its U.S. debut. This should-be classic, with its kaleidoscopic animation and vibrant mythos, is a unique contribution to the animated canon.” –Maya Phillips, New York Times (rerelase)
“…may be the greatest psychedelic animated movie ever made… The animation invites readymade comparisons to two earlier stalwarts of the genre, ‘Fantastic Planet’ and ‘Yellow Submarine,’ owing enough to those precedents that it may as well be conceived on a grid. At the same time, the movie radiates with a refreshing energy, pushing the boundaries of the animated form even by its own hallucinogenic standards.”–Eric Kohn, Indiewire (rerelease)
Arebelos Films: Son of the White Mare – Webpage from the studio that restored Jankovics’ film. Includes a brief description, screen shots, links for purchase, and press materials
IMDB LINK: Son of the White Mare (1981)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Production Information about the Feature Film Fehérlófia – The Big Cartoon Database has a nice article about Fehérlófia‘s production
Marcell Jankovics Q&A: “Why Would One Imitate Reality?” – This 2015 interview with the director touches upon Son of the White Mare, along with the animator’s later projects
‘Son Of The White Mare’: The Journey Of The Cult Classic’s 4K Restoration – Cartoon Brew interview with David Martiott and Craig Rodgers of Arbelos Films about the restoration
Marcell Jankovics Obituary – Life and career overview of Son of the White Mare‘s writer/director/animator, from Animation Magazine
Hungarian Fairy Tales, Folk Tales, and Fables – a collection of classic Hungarian folktales in English translation.
LIST CANDIDATE: SON OF THE WHITE MARE– This site’s original candidate review of the film.
HOME VIDEO INFO: It has arrived at last. Some waited years. Some waited decades. But the wait is over. Arbelos Films has assembled a truly stunning Blu-ray (buy), under the advisement and with the hearty approval of Marcell Jankovics. Son of the White Mare has never looked better, and can be purchased in both standard and limited editions. There are three bonus shorts from Jankovics, a contemporary interview with him, and a couple of illuminating essays—including a succinct and informative timeline of art and animation in the Soviet Union. (The sold-out “Limited Edition” also includes some sweet character cut-outs and a charming book-fold cover.) Most importantly, it looks crisp, colorful, and beautiful, and sounds immaculate. Son of the White Mare is a “Must See!”; its Blu-ray disc is, accordingly, a “Must Buy!”
At the time of this writing, Son of the White Mare can also be seen on the Criterion Channel or on Kanopy.
(This movie was first nominated for review by “Morgan,” who wrote “People can talk all they want on why they think the director was on “acid” but at first glance, you’d swear the entire movie was designed and colored by Franz Marc. Expressionism, Cubism, Futurism, Folklore, Symbolism, Numerology and Mythology. This is what this film is made from.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)