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Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter & The Wolf (2006)

BreakThru Films/Se-Ma-For Studios (2006, US premiere: July 2007), Magnolia Home Entertainment (December 9 2008), single disc, 32 mins plus over 60 mins supplements, 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, Dolby Digital, Not Rated (parental guidance suggested for some mildly tense scenes), Retail: $19.98

Animated News & Views Extra! Jeremie Noyer speaks to the filmmakers
about the making of Peter & The Wolf in our exclusive interviews here!

Storyboard:

Sergei Prokofiev’s immortal musically told story comes back to life in a stark and stunningly stop-motion rendered retelling which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short at the 2008 Academy Awards.

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The Sweatbox Review:

Co-funded by the UK’s Channel Four Films, Peter & The Wolf premiered in the UK in late 2006, before finally making its way across the pond to the US in July 2007. It proved a festival hit, resulting in not only a wider release in February 2008 but multiple award recognition. Having won for Best Animated Short at the Academy Awards later that same year and been honored multiple times at other kudos giving events, Peter & The Wolf finally comes to DVD in a very nice package that makes it clear that distributor Magnolia Entertainment is very pleased to be associated with the film.

Director Suzie Templeton had previously won acclaim for her short film Stanley (2000) and a clutch of awards for Dog (2002), both small, introspective pieces which she animated and produced herself and which set her in good standing when producer Hugh Welchman, later the visual effects producer of the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose, came looking for someone to helm a new interpretation of Prokofiev’s tale about a young lad who, against his Grandfather’s wishes, wanders outside of their compound and engages the attention of seriously dangerous wolf.

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Prokofiev had written the score, which famously assigns each character with its own musical motif as a subconscious way to help children learn about the instruments of the orchestra, in 1936 as a commission for the Moscow Children’s Theater. A combination of music and spoken narration, also written by the composer, he had personally hoped that the score would inspire an animated version by Disney. Prokofiev had spent time in Europe and the United States before returning to Russia in 1935, and an eventual meeting with Disney laid the foundation for the famed but cute Sterling Holloway-narrated segment of Walt Disney’s 1946 Package Feature Make Mine Music, later reissued as an animated short in its own right and as a popular Disneyland Records release again with narration by Holloway.

Welchman was aiming to get away from previous animated versions of the story, especially Disney’s and perhaps the second most well-known edition, a Chuck Jones-produced special from 1996 which featured reasonable designs and animation, but was sapped of any real charm by drab live-action sequences and unconvincing new musical arrangements. There was also a Tiny Toons Adventures pastiche of the tale, Buster And The Wolverine (available in that series’ first volume on disc), but Templeton was clearly in sync with this new production’s aims and certainly achieves Welchman’s ambition: her Peter & The Wolf forgoes any attempt at being warm in a wanting to be liked sense and instead goes for a desolate approach that still manages to grip the viewer and pull their involvement into the story.

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Much of the success of the visuals is down to the look and feel, of course, and here the credentials of the co-producing Polish crew come to the fore. If one could argue that the stop-motion medium itself has led to the developing of several “sub-genres”, from the O’Brien, Harryhausen and Pal method of inserting extraordinary creatures into a scene, to the resurgence of the claymation of Aardman and the most popular new wave of Burton-esque toned films (from Nightmare Before Christmas to this year’s Coraline), then it’s the startlingly tactile Eastern European touch that Peter & The Wolf most resembles, and very much so. I recall being almost forced-fed with this kind of material from Russia as a child growing up without much original animation on the goggle box, but few examples apart (such as the work of Norway’s Caprino Studios), it was never as evocative, involving and as delicately crafted as this, a mixture of simple production processes being perfected over the years and the benefit of computer assisted technology helping to clean up the roughness.

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It also helped that Peter & The Wolf was able to shoot on some of the largest stop-motion sets ever constructed, meaning that the fine level of detail could be reproduced in a slightly larger scale than usual, allowing for further access to the models, meaning better articulation and the considerably more intricate animation that results. The images are so natural looking as a result, that the filmmakers obviously feel confident enough in themselves to drop the narrative appendix that usually exclaims what is happening to our characters and simply go with a very visual and cinematic pantomime, relying on the extensive expressionism of the models and the superlative performances of the animators to convey the actions, mood and tone. Nowhere is this more evident in Peter’s face itself; as the lead and without the aid of vocals or narration, he really is required to act, and that he does so as well as he does, with the aid of very subtly altered modelling, provides the emotional core of the film and the identifying character that we can associate with.

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The actual settings help with the authentic feeling too: although we’re in a more contemporary location than the turn of the century often depicted in previous film, stage and recorded versions of the tale, Templeton’s film returns the story firmly to Russia, albeit a fairly bleak, Soviet-era one, with rundown shacks, bare forests and a town that feels almost apocalyptic in its desolateness. Perhaps this is a comment or perhaps not, but whatever the reasoning behind the stylistic choice, it does allow Peter, in his colourful red jacket, to stand out amongst the drabness, and just strikes the differences between the real world and Peter’s almost make-believe world home even further. Indeed, the Russian roots may have also informed the animation style itself as a further subconscious tie to those kinds of films (I was also reminded of Anders Ronnow Klarlund’s 2004 marionette feature Strings). But if Peter’s red coat can symbolise joy and hope, the dark, gray wolf is the miserable realism; the film’s ending suggesting that both should be able to co-exist to allow the other to survive.

While Peter & The Wolf is as faithful an adaptation as any of the other versions, it does feel the hand of our times upon its values, and diverts away from the original in several aspects. Prokofiev’s music is more or less intact, even if it has been reconfigured to work cinematically: Templeton’s story seems to be more concerned with character, personality and motivation than it is with sticking too faithfully to the score or the traditional attempts to match instruments with characters. In this day and age, the hunters who traditionally rescue Peter from his toothy fate are shown to be mean and reckless roughians, militaristic characters that elicit an instant dislike towards them and, thus, nods towards the unappealing nature of hunting. Also, this time around the animal cruelty opposition gets the upper hand as the Wolf isn’t actually slayed, and does eventually escape his confines in an admittedly touching climax at which the hunters are ridiculed, and he and Peter share a poignant moment of reflection. Reality does pervade, however, and those expecting to see early casualty the scrawny Duck’s time-honoured return will be disappointed. When she’s gone, she’s gone.

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This event did not seem to stir up any considerably sad feelings in the eight year old girl in the family that I ended up catching this version of the tale with when it played on television over the holidays. Despite my previously taking a sneak peek at this DVD, and being slightly concerned that it may prove too grim a telling for her, she became actively involved, as much drawn in by the music as the visuals as I was, and being accurately concerned for the characters, including the Wolf. That this Peter & The Wolf, despite the rather breezy nature of Prokofiev’s themes, wasn’t made up of CGI eye-candy pixels and instead goes for a heightened realism, is a testament to the simple but powerful original story and this version’s expert clarity in its direction. Moody, but wonderfully detailed, director Suzie Templeton breaks away from the slightly avant garde approach that has served her well so far, but manages to bring some of that sensibility to her mainstream break here. It’s no wonder that the film took some five years to create, but Peter & The Wolf, apart from showcasing the delightful music, is as rewarding an experience as they come.

Is This Thing Loaded?

The clear benefit of an Oscar win here is that Peter & The Wolf has been treated to a wealth of supplemental features that genuinely make the overall package a steal at the $20 list price (and well under that online, one suspects). Over sixty minutes of behind the scenes footage, put together by BreakThru Films themselves, ensure one attains a full grasp of the painstaking five year period Templeton and her primarily British, Polish and Norwegian filmmaking teams gave to making sure every bit of their film was as perfect as intended.

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The disc opens with an obligatory spot for the HD-Net and HD-Movies service, which is skippable, and it’s not long before we come to the animated main menu, which offers up a number of options, including playing the Film With Introduction (2:47), which I had expected to be a quick few words from Templeton reflecting on her Oscar win, but is instead a brief look at the musical themes and instruments assigned to each character using clips from the film and studio session footage. This essentially means a bypass for the first of the Special Features proper, since the Musical Themes Of Peter & The Wolf found in the bonus menu is one and the same clip.

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The Making Of Peter & The Wolf is where the real treats begin, with an in-depth 15 minute look at the film’s shooting, mixing in the filmmakers’ talking heads and tons of concept art. It’s when you see footage like this that the numbers – five years to create a half-hour of film – really get knocked home, and the sheer time and effort involved in bringing a film of this scale to the screen is realised. And scale is the right word: it’s simply fascinating to witness the huge size of the sets that were built to accommodate the artists’ needs. A combination of EPK and video diary approaches, this is very much fly on the wall documentary filmmaking, the hand-held camera and several jump cuts in the interviews lending it a rough and ready tone that somehow feels very appropriate. Although there are no on-screen captions for the participants, names are often referenced and one can pretty much guess who everyone is, though most intriguingly are the before and after glimpses of pre-and-post digital effects work, including armature rig removal, FX screen replacement and the Bird’s blue balloon, supplemented to the Polish animator’s work by Norway’s Storm Studio.

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As if that wasn’t enough, a nine minute On The Screen And On The Set Behind The Scenes Documentary clip from Polish television runs more like the kind of polished featurette that we may be used to nowadays, a fast cut general overview of the production taking in on set footage and sound bites. Evidently shot during production, the emphasis here is more on the genesis of the film and the actual five-month Polish animation shoot, revealing more of the epic-sized sets and the problems that result because of their bulk. Shown in its original 4:3, the Polish speakers have been subtitled in English.

Perhaps akin to the complete storyboard versions of the Studio Ghibli films found on their two-disc releases is my favorite supplement here, a Director’s Commentary to a full-length Rough Cut of the film. This is excellent stuff, with Templeton joined by lead animator Adam Wyrwas for a discussion against an early, pre-cleaned edition of Peter & The Wolf. Highlights here are revealing looks at how the production managed some of its tricks: the blue screen shots later replaced with digital magic, the visibility of the armature rigs that will be removed, the pre-visualised elements and the original scenes before the Bird’s blue balloon had been inserted into frame. Best of all, this track was obviously recorded during production, so that one can see that some of the eventual ideas Templeton relates to those in the sound booth with her would later change before the film was finalised, and she also points out mistakes that would need to be cleaned up or were re-shot. There are several silences and, being the foreign speaker, Wyrwas is understandably less vocal than Templeton, but this is such an eye-opener as to the sheer amount of work that was still needed even after the stop-motion shoot wrapped. Interestingly, this version ends with an end credit music reprise, which I felt the final result could have benefited from.

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A Peter & The Wolf Educational Workshop For Schools (7:40) again expands the use of the individual instruments and musical motifs for each character, combined with role playing and physical exercises, but there’s very little context other than a few words from the teachers involved in the project, which aims to offer ways to further use the film as a schooling aid. Lastly, I was hoping that Peter & The Wolf In Pictures might be a closer gallery-styled look at the concept, developmental artwork and production stills, but it turns out to be an extremely redundant four and a half minute reprise of the film in still frames, with the story told on screen in text accompanied by selections of the score. I’m puzzled by the inclusion: reducing the considerable animated achievement to a grouping of frame grabs amounts to little, while the text doesn’t even recreate Prokofiev’s originally written narration. It’s a somewhat muted end to an otherwise top-notch selection of supplements.

Case Study:

Proudly proclaiming its “Academy Award Winner: 2007 Short Film (Animated)” status atop an evocative poster treatment of Peter and his animal friends being stalked by the Wolf lurking hazily in the background with his dark blue eyes staring menacingly out from the sleeve, Peter & The Wolf might not stand out on shelves covered with lighter, brighter fare, but deserves to be seen. There’s no insert, but the back of the package presents a montage of stills from the film and lists the bonus material. Disc art replicates the front artwork, while the 32 minute feature has been sliced up into 16 chapter stops.

Ink And Paint:

Having been produced in Europe, it’s understandable that Peter & The Wolf seems to have been mastered to a PAL format, meaning that the video conversion here is an interlaced transfer. While in days gone by this might have meant a murky and sometimes blurred image, recent conversion techniques and better DVD playback allows a lot more to be gotten away with, and indeed as I’ve said before, if there are any interframes visible in standard playback, they only assist in helping the stop-motion, here rendered on twos, achieve more fluidity.

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The colors are as muted as intended, with Peter’s red coat and the expertly inserted blue CG balloon the stand-outs. The film runs a solid 29 minutes, with a three minute credit scroll that feels longer because it runs silent, but as such there is plenty of room for both the feature and the supplements (mostly in 16:9 and varying in picture quality) to breathe.

Scratch Tracks:

Offered in both Dolby 2.0 and 5.1 mixes, the musical emphasis on the score means that there isn’t really much in the comparisons between the two other than a sense of a slightly wider spread with the extra channels engaged. Musical director Mark Stevenson premiered his arrangement along with the film at a live performance at London’s Royal Albert Hall in September 2006, and it might have been interesting to see or hear that recording (if it exists) as a comparison instead of including the fairly redundant 2.0 track. However, the soundtrack assembled and reproduced here is strong in its dynamics, and the music – most importantly and as performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra – comes through very nicely textured.

Final Cut:

Prokofiev’s original music has enchanted me since I heard it on a record album (in French!) when I was a young lad, and the stirring strings of Peter’s theme is something that gets burned into one’s psyche at such an early age that it could never bring anything but a smile to the face. But this version adds several layers of depth to the story and brings it to life with a realistic touch that still manages to remain in the fantasy world, thanks to the use of the stop-motion process as the chosen medium to express those ideas. As an adaptation of Peter & The Wolf, Templeton’s film is a very different beast than what has come before, which lends it its own uniqueness: followers of recent stop-motion animation would do well to see the film and lap up the generous extras also presented. Regardless of whether one might come away feeling uplifted or not (and one should, even if the very young may find it tough going at points), there’s no denying that this is a considerable animated achievement, and one that’s been rightfully recognised by its Oscar win and by the extremely decent presentation is has been awarded on this disc.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

MAIN FEATURE
SUPPLEMENTS
VIDEO IMAGE
SOUND TRACK
OVERALL DVD

 

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