The Book of Masters (Книга мастеров) is the first production by the Russian wing of Walt Disney Productions - an initiative that looks to give filmmakers of a distinctly different tradition the worthy budget to realise their ideas. Although, in this case, the extra money is more of a hindrance than a help. In concept, this is a cheeky send-up of various tales from Russian folklore, streamlined into a peppy caper that brings with it few surprises.
The daughter of Slavic mythological witch Baba Yaga is fated to become the fearsome Stone Countess, who raises an army of terrible inhuman golems to one day take over the world. However, she needs to harness the power of Alatyr, a special mineral that, when sculpted by a master stone carver, grants its bearer dominion over life and death.
Of course, there’s a young protagonist, in this case Ivan (Maxim Loktionov), a humble stone carver in a little village, who must learn from the Book of Masters, fulfill his destiny and win the heart of Katya (Mariya Andreeva), a beautiful, feisty princess kept captive by the Stone Countess.
The twist is that this is a slightly post-modern take, playing with tradition while remaining firmly within its conventional structure. Unfortunately, this mainly manifests in a series of contemporary pop-culture references, which are sometimes equally inventive and cheeky (a ball of twine, guiding our hero through the Endless Forest, has the voice and mentality of a Sat Nav unit), but become increasingly tired as the film progresses, mostly consisting of awkward sound effect gags - such as a sword being brandished to the fizz of a lightsaber, or a scene being punctuated by an appearance of the sad trombone melody.
But most perilous for this production are the opportunities afforded by its budget. Director-writer Vadim Sokolowsky seems to have been tempted to indulge every whim, over-stuffing the film with slow-motion sequences, crash-zooms and gratuitous CGI shots. These add up to a hollow mimicry of Hollywood blockbuster convention, and the production design apes Terry Gilliam at its colourful best, or, frustratingly, lifts locations and character concepts from Lord of The Rings at its worst. When the Stone Countess stands atop her craggy tower, surveying her land of scorched earth, lava and mist, you wonder if a small team of hackers had broken into the WETA Digital servers, and downloaded their Tolkien-specific asset library.
Lacking in the imagination and playfulness to craft something truly unique, The Book of Masters seems willing to simply mirror American style. A disappointing opening gambit for Disney’s investment in the region.
What a delightful treat The Magic Tree (Magiczne drzewo) is, in comparison. No doubt made for a fraction of the cost, it is full of wonder and has a number of bold ideas all of its own.
Initially developed as a Polish television series by creator-writer-director Andrzej Maleszka, The Magic Tree imagines that an enchanted, ancient oak is one day felled in a lightning storm. The resulting timber is used to create assorted knick-knacks, accessories and pieces of furniture, each exhibiting mysterious powers. In a cheeky opening titles sequence, a series of Youtube-style handheld videos reveal clogs that dance to their own rhythm, and wardrobes that lurch around the room.
But this film focuses on a little red chair, which grants wishes to anyone who sits on it. Bounding from its delivery van, and high-tailing it over inner-city traffic, the chair soon finds its way under the bums of officially The Cutest Family In All Of Poland. Seriously, mum and dad are classical musicians who sing their way through Mozart on car journeys, as their three cheeky kids beam from the backseat. Their first wish, when they find the chair squirrelled away at the back of a bustling urban festival, is for pizza, naturally. However, their ambitious businesswoman aunt soon sits on the chair, and wishes for the humble parents to take a lucrative job on a round the world cruise, landing the children - Tosia (Maja Tomawska), Filip (Filip Fabis) and Kuki (Adam Szczególa) - in her far-from-motherly care.
The rest of the film follows a simple plot: the children want to be reunited with their parents, and traverse the countryside in order to reach the next port on the cruise’s itinerary. Maleszka has a lot of fun with the concept, playing with the limits of the chair’s power, while shaping all plot developments and solutions in accordance to the imaginations of hyper-active children. For example, the aunt (who employs a deaf-mute maid, she says, so they can’t either make noise or eavesdrop) starts to give them trouble, so they turn her into a kid as well, and take her along for the adventure.
It’s remarkably twee, and infectiously fun. While not sporting the epic scope of The Book of Masters, this more modest effort is something quite special and distinctive. It’s a shame we won’t be seeing it at the multiplex any time soon - but let’s hope one day Maleszka finds a more international platform for his vision.