For the first post in a new series on animation, Olivia Domba introduces Rusalochka (1968), a Russian film that shares its source material with the Disney classic The Little Mermaid (1989).

In Soviet Russia, fairy tales don’t have happy endings. In the case of Rusalochka (The Little Mermaid), a faithful adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the little mermaid does in fact die in the end. Rusalochka shares little with the incredibly popular Disney version of the story: the mermaid sings only one song, the talking fish wears a babushka, and the “hag” of this story lacks the same diabolical je ne sais quoi of Ursula. It would be improper to compare the twenty-seven minute Soviet version with the full length Disney version, with its Alan Menken score, Broadway stage adaptation, and direct-to-DVD sequel.

Disney’s The Little Mermaid has the distinction of being the last full-length feature film to use hand-painted cel animation.  Disney started using a device invented by Pixar, called CAPS (Computer Animation Production System), which eliminated the use of cels and the need for a multiplane camera, as well as making many of the animation processes used by the Mouse House up until that point. While The Little Mermaid represents the end of an era, Rusalochka presents an example of how layered and beautiful traditional forms of animation can be.

Rusalochka uses a combination of traditional cel animation and cutout animation. Cutout animation, as the name implies, involves using flat images such as paper cutouts or photographs and manipulating them in order to produce the animated image. El Apóstol, considered the first animated film, used cutout animation. For those less versed in extremely obscure animation, a good example of modern cutout animation would “South Park,” which originally used paper cutouts, but has now transitioned to using computers to mimic the original technique.

Although it uses one of the oldest known animation techniques, Rusalochka use of movement, texture, and color distinguish it from modern animated films. Because of the nature of cutout animation, movement becomes less fluid than in films that rely only on cel animation. When a boat sails across the ocean in Rusalochka, it does so as a static image that moves across the frame. The boat moves up and down and across, but it retains the same depth no matter where it is in the frame. The sails, while cut to give the impression of billowing in the wind, do not move. The only movement on the ship is that of the prince’s cape, the ship’s flag, and the hanging lantern.

The lack of depth in the animation underscores its function as a complete abstraction of reality. There is no realism in the visual construct of the film. The colors are, as with many films from the late 1960s, extreme. Texture comes in the form of backgrounds that resemble embossed wallpaper, ocean water that appears to be made of mesh netting, and the mixture of photographed images with animation unique to the film.

Rusalochka is traditional animation at its best: it draws attention to the construction of each image and the ultimate nature of the form as a whole. It is refreshing, once exposed to Merida’s bouncing curls (and the knowledge of how long it took to develop the program used to animate those curls) in Brave, to look at the mermaid’s hair in Rusalochka and see how it snakes in the water. Realism has no place in Rusalochka, but should it ever have a place in animation?

Check out Rusalochka on YouTube!