If one were to squint at one of the few motionless images in Hungarian director Marcell Jankovics’ hypnotic, beguiling, and masterfully animated 1981 film Son of the White Mare, it might resemble a tableaux familiar to American audiences. When three mythical brothers – each one rendered in a different primary color – sit atop a portal to the darkest side of their folklore-inspired world, it inevitably recalls the three color-coded fairies from Walt Disney Studios’ Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Disney’s take on that European folktale may be their most striking and elegant ever, but other than its relative visual adventurousness, magic-wielding trio, and fairy-tale origins, any similarity between Son of the White Mare and Sleeping Beauty – or any other mainstream animated film, for that matter – ends there. Newly restored and given its proper U.S. premiere some four decades after its Hungarian release, Jankovics’ kaleidoscopic vision is truly a revelation, a hand-painted marvel that’s one part pop art, one part folk art, and yet wholly original, pulsating with all the possibilities of the moving image.
To be fair, the feature’s ambitions are different from those of most films, animated or not. Son belongs to a wave of animated imports that broke into stateside arthouses beginning in the ‘60s. Had it been readily available since its initial release, this cinematic wonder might already belong to the small canon of films positioned halfway between the purely experimental cinema of animators like Frank Mouris and Norman McLaren and popular narrative fare. René Laloux’s exquisitely drawn Fantastic Planet (1973) and Jan Švankmajer’s stop-motion Alice (1988) lead this pack and are often found on film-school classroom screens or television sets in front of glass-eyed stoners. (One can throw in the Beatles’ 1968 psychedelic musical Yellow Submarine for good measure.)
These films’ reputations don’t rest solely on their trippy aesthetics: Planet is also a fable-cum-missive about fascism, and Alice explores the queasy sexual roots of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Similarly, Jankovics uses his homeland’s popular myth of Fehérlófia (also the film’s original Hungarian title) as a plea for a return to the earth and away from its destruction through individualism (read: capitalism).
Treeshaker is the titular human offspring of a mythical horse that encourages the man’s destiny to recapture their land from the evil dragons who have overtaken the peaceful kingdoms of the world. Treeshaker’s rise in superhuman strength brings about the death of his equine mother, which sets him on a path toward freeing the three kingdoms. Along the way, he enlists the help of the mare’s other sons, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, whose names also derive from their unique powers. As in most mythic journeys to save the universe, the three encounter power-mad monsters, puzzling roadblocks, and tests of strength and unity.
Both the original myth and the film’s logline might be simple, but Son of the White Mare tells the tale through abstraction. With a square-ish Academy ratio, Jankovics and his animators generally create two types of images: strikingly symmetrical ones with a centered forced perspective and ones in which layered planes move on different axes. Common between these two modes is their unending creativity, smashing intricately detailed layers of matte paintings with dynamic bursts of form and color. This kind of perpetual whirlpool can become numbing in similarly experimental films, but Jankovics’ contains such a brimming wellspring of fresh ideas, the effect is always invigorating and involving.
Against these back- and foregrounds, characters and figures shape-shift from frame to frame, while bold, color-coordinated outlines and shapes allow for easy identification. It’s a basic scheme that is nevertheless versatile, especially in a late battle scene during which three characters exemplify the major artistic influences on the film’s visual style. Treeshaker is pagan folk art, the queen of the kingdom is pure Peter Max pop, and the 12-headed “dragon” made of modular monoliths is late-’70s/early-’80s cocaine chic.
Alongside this dip into a contemporary aesthetic and the film’s propulsive and shimmery synth score, Son of the White Mare is very much of its time(s) – both the era of its underlying mythology and the historical moment of its creation. To wit, one could ask that Jankovics have updated the gender-essentialist symbology – his film is chock-full of nature-as-woman and phallus-as-power representation – carried over from its source, but those ideas are still prevalent in creation myths and paganism even now. Although outmoded ideas are always worth highlighting, no film should be disconnected from its era, and even though the one from which Son of the White Mare springs is occasionally too apparent, this time machine is an astonishing visual masterpiece that viewers will be grateful has been made more accessible.