SUMMARY: A little grey wolf from a child’s lullaby becomes the spectator of, and occasional participant in, a series of symbolic, interlinked memories of an unspecified mind.
WHY IT’S HERE: With his previous short ‘Hedgehog in the Fog’, Yuriy Norshteyn had already established himself as one of the most important animation directors of all time. But his subsequent short, ‘Tale of Tales’, managed to make his previous masterwork seem almost like a trivial children’s film by comparison. An audaciously ambitious, exquisitely immersive and indefatigably unique film, ‘Tale of Tales’ manages to tap into an emotional vein that no other film, animated or otherwise, has ever quite reached. Frequent comparisons have been made with Andrei Tarkovsky’s live-action ‘Mirror’ but I’d say ‘Tale of Tales’ is more affecting still than that.
Combining half-remembered fragments of childhood with indecipherable surreal images and elements of Russian history, ‘Tale of Tales’ maintains its all-encompassing melancholic mood throughout its half hour runtime. Norshteyn works mainly in muddy browns, greys and black, with only the occasional patch of colour or intrusion from a bright white light which seems to have a transportative property for the little wolf. But amongst this dark palette we see images of a nostalgic quality as well as moments of deep sadness. One of the film’s most celebrated images is that of a group of dancing couples. As the record they’re dancing to begins to skip, one of the men disappears with each jump, and the happy figures become hunched soldiers on their way to war. Moments later, notices of death flutter back to the hands of the women like purposeful birds, removing the men from their lives forever.
Not every image is so easy to interpret, but full understanding was never the point of this film and to impose a rigid interpretation is to rob it of its power to tap into the viewer’s own feelings and memories. Watching ‘Tale of Tales’ is akin to being asleep. Where else would you encounter such vividly obtuse images as a large, downhearted bull perpetually engaged in a skipping game. Cynics who would shrug all this off as pretentious nonsense ought to see the film if only to appreciate its disarming visual beauty and the subtle diversity of Norshteyn’s vision. Notes of comedy are even introduced in the mannerisms of the wolf as he burns his paw on a hot potato or in the casual demeanour of a young boy sharing his apple with a group of crows. Ultimately, for all its melancholia, ‘Tale of Tales’ leaves the viewer feeling invigorated, challenged and fulfilled. It may take a few viewings to completely weave its magic but the experience of watching this short is like nothing else and it is best enjoyed alone, with no distractions to take you out of the experience. Not for nothing has ‘Tale of Tales’ been voted the best animated short ever made by several different sources. It is a truly singular experience.