Sergei Prokofiev's classic 1936 story of a boy and his animal friends threatened by a hungry wolf has been a favourite with adults and children, and has been recorded on LP and CD with various international orchestras and stellar narrators. Most recordings allow listeners to enjoy the narrative music on its own, and with the accompanying vocal narrator who identifies the instruments representing the animals and human characters, and tells the story.
Like the original Grimm fairy tales, a good story never loses its attraction to filmmakers, and it's unsurprising numerous short films have been made over the past 60 years, including the classic 1946 Disney version. Perhaps learning a lesson from Bambi, in which the mother deer dies in the film, Disney chose to let Peter's best friend, a long-necked duck, live at the end, but in changing that element, it reduced the hard reality for kiddies that animals get eaten by other animals, and it ain't pretty.
This new stop-motion animated version by BAFTA-winning Suzie Templeton (Stanley in 2000, and Dog in 2002) goes back to the edginess of the original story, but with some worthy changes that don't affect the beauty and horror within Prokofiev's music tale.
The basics are still there: while his grandfather sleeps, Peter sneaks beyond the fence and watches his duck and bird play in the winter forest, only to be threatened by a wolf. When the ruthless predator eats the goose, Peter and the bird manage to snag a noose around the wolf's tail, and with the help of the grandfather, stop the wolf from committing more immediate harm.
Templeton's team of animators and designers have created a kind of rural, forties Russian village, with lovely costumes for the characters, detailed sets, and a title design evoking the stark fonts used in vintage Russian poster art.
The human characters don't speak not a word is uttered throughout the film but their feelings and thoughts come through with crystal clarity via facial expressions, and in the case of Peter, the boy's large expressive eyes. When he's angry, moping, or planning a suitable revenge for the wolf, Peter carries a hardened visage and cold eyes, unwavering in their emotional intensity; the grandfather's fussy personality, in turn, is addressed though his skin textured, wrinkled and rumply from decades of life experiences.
The real treat are the animals, particularly the bird and duck, admittedly anthropomorphic in their affection towards Peter and their own reactions when they tease each other and are amused by the other's embarrassment. In Templeton's film, the bird has a bum wing, and flies using a balloon that gives it some buoyancy; and the duck's slender, dirty-brown figure makes it an endearing creature, particularly when it's been locked outside of the compound after Peter's grandfather drags him back to the house, and bolts the exit door shut.
Templeton's singular shot of a sad, abandoned duck, standing on the frozen lake after a long play session is particularly touching. That sets up the escalating fear when we watch Peter trapped behind the high fence as he watched the wolf kill the duck in a few rapid gulps.
Peter's vengeance takes over the playful tenor of the short's first forest interlude, and Templeton uses the physical positions of the remaining characters the bird and his grandfather's fat, selfish cat (another beautifully animated character) to craft some great moments as the trio sort of coordinate a clumsy but successful attempt to ensnare the wolf. It's a bit of Indiana Jones, but it allows us to really get involved in the battle as they get even with the wolf, and the close calls encountered by the trio before a pair of hunters start to enter the picture from the story margins.
Prokofiev's music actually doesn't really kick in until Peter first exits the compound with his animals, and the music is frequently divided by dramatic pauses, thereby accentuating the performances of the emotive characters.
While still a kid-friendly short film, the darker tone and the duck's demise will be shocking to those reared on nothing but sanitized versions of the story, and it's to Templeton's credit that subsequent viewings, with an awareness of what's ahead, make the relationship between the boy and his animal friend even more touching.
A DVD of this superb film is available in Europe, and comes with extras chronicling its design and production, including a making-of featurette with various interviews, and scenes of the immense, detailed sets constructed for the short's 5-year production term.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan