Translating the Russian Disney film, the Last Warrior

Mama is not sure that Disney should have allowed their Russian language film project to be called Posledniy Bogatyr (Последний Богатырь). This is because it is difficult to translate.

 The choices in the English language speaking world seem to be between the Last Warrior, which sounds inappropriately militaristic, The Last Knight, which is better in terms of thematic relevance and all but conjures up all the wrong visual images, and the Last Hero, which has already been taken.

I mean, you wouldn’t call samurai anything else, would you? And a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr is a Russian bogatyr, and particularly so in this film, which is a romp though some of Russia’s best loved fairy tales.

Of course, Disney might not be planning an English language release. I mean, they’d have to dub it or something! Still.

The hero of the Last Warrior is Ivan (of course he is), a modern Muscovite who is a magician and a con man who gets unexpectedly dumped in a magical fantasyland version of Russia, and finds himself responsible for saving the day (of course he does).

As the Last Knight goes about establishing his backstory, there are all sorts of pleasing Moscow references  such as him living in what looks like a swish apartment in the high-rise complex of Moscow city (an extremely good choice for his character, given that the reputation of the development is mostly built on smoke and mirrors, and everyone in Moscow knows it). He’s the star of a reality TV show. He has encounters with difficult babushkas and his salt-of-the-earth middle-aged housekeeper. He also gets into trouble with VIP Russians and their bouncers, and ends up being chased around a shopping mall with a giant water slide complex inside. And look out for the gratuitous Putin reference.

Mama thinks somebody had a lot of fun with this section. The Last Hero may have been backed by Disney, but it is really driven by a Russian production company, Yellow, Black and White, who are responsible for a number of hit TV sit coms in Russia. Programmes which have also provided both the lead hero, played by Viktor Khorinyak, and the lead villain, played by Ekaterina Vilkova. The local knowledge really shows.

Not that this means that only Russians or people very familiar with Russian culture can enjoy the Last Bogatyr. Yes, if you know your Slavic folklore you will be happily anticipating certain entrances and appreciate the way that Russian fairy tale tropes are dealt with, including the way that this provides a plot twist that Mama, at least, did not see coming. But Slav fairy tales are not that dissimilar to folklore the world over, and the Last Warrior makes no real assumptions about its audience’s familiarity with the stories; each character is introduced carefully, and the plot itself is wholly new. Or at least as new as it can be given the genre.

The Last Warrior Disney Russian film selfie

So was it any good?

Well, the landscape that the heroes spend their time trekking through is lovely. High altitude meadows filled with wildflowers, oak trees and pine forests all around, babbling streams and frosty mountains looming in the distance. Mama was even moved to look up where the Last Knight was shot, and apparently it was actually filmed on Russian territory, down by Sochi and a bit further across in the Caucuses. She can only assume that this bit was sponsored by the Southern Russia Domestic Tourism Board.

Also, Mama and I are both agreed that it is pretty cool that the three most competent people in the film are women. The youngest of these, Vasilysa, (Mila Sivatskaya) is, in fact, the muscle for the band of heroes. She gets to attack people expertly with swords and wear reasonably sensible clothes for a fighting woman in fantasy land (looking not dissimilar to a certain Rey of Star Wars fame to be honest). Sivatskaya also managed the difficult job of allowing Vasilysa’s more vulnerable side to give a bit of verisimilitude to her inevitable attraction to Ivan.

There’s a couple of really good fight scenes and horse chases of the sort that if you enjoy those scenes in the Pirates of the Caribbean, you will almost certainly appreciate the ones in the Last Hero. It is certainly the sort of thing that Mama goes to the cinema for. The problem she had here was that the camerawork in these moments favoured close up jerky movements cutting swiftly between different angles and all the characters involved, which detracted from her appreciation of the action a bit in places. As in, she couldn’t actually see it.

Possibly it was part of the obvious strategy of making the movie as whole family friendly as possible. Blood and gore was decidedly not in evidence, and the fights were inventive in demonstrating the ways to overcome your enemy without actually dismembering them. Or, in fact, killing them even a little bit. I liked this. I’d been a bit dubious about going to see a film about Baba Yaga. In Mama’s old book of fairy takes from around the world the story of Vasilysa and Russia’s archetypal witch is among the most hair-raising. This, in a book written in the seventies, when Granny was irretrievably eaten by the wolf, and the other wolf boiled alive by the pigs. Sort of thing.

And Baba Yaga doesn’t really improve when you get in amongst the Russians and hear more.

Nothing of that sort here. In fact Papa grumbled a bit that Koschei the Immortal (Konstantin Lavronenko), usually Baba Yaga’s equal in undying menace, was a bit lacking in both manic evil cackling or fighting prowess. Mama, on the other hand, rather liked the calm world-weariness he projected in what is otherwise quite a melodramatic movie, and my Excitable Big Brother thought he was The Best.

Mama liked Baba Yaga best, played by Elena Yakovleva, despite her seven-year old misgivings. Of course she did. Mama is… getting… older…  and rather appreciated the fact that two of the more important characters are not, let’s just say, in their first blush of youth. Baba Yaga is extremely grumpy, wants to eat Ivan, and is a master of magic potions and magic creature seduction.

Fabulous, and the latter scenes a relatively neat way to reference the apparent preference of fairy tales around the world to make everything about sex with nubile young women, without, actually, making it about sex with nubile young women. Especially when the Last Bogatyr turned the whole stereotype on its head. Although Mama would probably have cut that plotline out altogether. She suspects some of the scriptwriters of taking their research into folk tales and clear determination to reference nearly all of them too seriously.

Still, at least it wasn’t scary.

As for the rest of the cast, Khorinyak as Ivan manages the journey from being a bit of a cad to a true big-hearted bogatyr hero well, and is also able to handle the physical humour of the role. As for Vilkova, as the evil queen she was suitably implacable and menacing, a dab hand with a bow and arrow, had great hair and turned into a giant white badass owl. What more could you want? In your FACE Harry Potter.

There were actual laugh out loud moments, which doesn’t happen as often as you might think in things that are billed as comedies. And there was at least one joke which the adults found funnier than the kids, which was nice for them. But we all thought the business with Koschei and the rock was hysterical.

But most impressive as a recommendation is that Papa, who is extraordinarily fussy about films, liked it, his quibble about a toothless Koschei notwithstanding. I’ll be honest, this is as rare as an extremely rare thing, and it makes no difference usually whether the movie is Russian, English, French or Japanese.

Of course, he was running a fever.

Anyway, let’s hope that the broad hint that a sequel could be forthcoming pays off. The Last Warrior seems to have done decent business at the box office and been reasonably well received by the critics, so it may well. That’ll give you, what, a year or so to learn Russian so you can enjoy it all too. Although if you are in Germany, it comes out on 19th November. Go for it.

And in case you can’t access it any other way, here is a trailer with English subtitles. Enjoy!

More information

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Samurai society.

Photocredit: Mama has shamelessly used a couple of interesting pictures she found lying around on the internet to promote this Disney film, a service for which she is not receiving any form of compensation whatsoever. However, if she should not be using these pictures, she is very willing to take them down.

CulturedKids

The Historical and Ethnographic Theatre, Moscow

Going to see a theatrical performance of a fairy tale which isn’t a pantomime is an oddly disconcerting experience for Mama. But this was the mission she took on at the Historical and Ethnographic Theatre in Moscow.

Historical and Ethnographic Theatre Moscow
In we go!

Which, incidentally, is a fabulous space. The classical façade notwithstanding, inside someone has gotten busy with the carpentry, and the foyer transports you straight to rural Russia, with the traditional wooden log cabin on your right representing the entrance to the stage, and the typical windows of your average village house on your left inviting you into the café. Wonderful conceit.

Historical and Ethnographic Theatre Foyer Moscow
What is behind this door?

Especially when you do get inside and you find that there are rustic theatre boxes lining the sides of the auditorium, turning it into a sort of peasant Bolshoi theatre.

Boxes at the Historical and Ethnographic Theatre Moscow
How cool are these boxes?

Mama is quietly determined to splash out for one of them as soon as she can manufacture an occasion to faintly justify it. But even the sound and lighting guys and gals at the back had their own little wooden hut to hide out in. It’s all really really cool.

And very intimate as the space is not vast. You’ll get a decent view from wherever you sit, particularly as for our afternoon performance at least, the place was only about half full. This sort of thing is important when you are as short as me and can have your enjoyment of a show ruined by an incautiously tall Papa in front of the seat you are determined to have for your very own.

Anyway. The Historical and Ethnographic Theatre, being a Historical and Ethnographic Theatre, has a regular programme of weekend performances of traditional tales, told in a traditional way and including traditional folk singing and traditional costumes from around the various regions of the Russian Federation and other similar territories.

On the day we went the story was entitled ‘Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless’, which is one of the more Slavic ones.

Mama was a bit worried about that, to be honest. She thinks that Russian children’s tales can be a bit frightening – certainly the one about the witch Baba Yaga and her hut on a chicken’s leg surrounded by glowing skulls in her childhood book of magical realism from around the world gave her the screaming heebie jeebies way back when – and the idea of an unkillable antagonist who locks up young women and insists they marry him is not encouraging of peaceful dreams for when we get back home.

No, much better to stick to the ones for really young children, like Kolobok, the chippy little bread roll who gets eaten by a fox in the last act.

But she relaxed when the entire first half of the story seemed not to be about Kosehi at all, but the archetypal Slav hero, Ivan Tsarevich, and his search for his fated wife, Marya Morevna, complete with comedy animal side kicks.

Mama was quite pleased about that plot. Particularly as the entirety of the contribution of the other female characters aside from Marya Morevna, Ivan’s sisters, was to get hitched to strange wizards in the first five minutes. Important, of course, because these wizards would be continually rescuing Ivan from the consequences of his folly for the rest of the play, but hardly a role to aspire to. Mama says.

Marya Morevna herself seemed much more promising to Mama. She’s billed as a warrior princess, for goodness sake, and indeed seems to have quite comfortably kept the dread Koschei (who did eventually make an appearance) chained to the back of her throne until Ivan turned up, got bored and let him out.

Koschei at the Ethnographic Theatre Moscow
Koschei the Deathless revealed!

But then she was relegated to being unsuccessfully rescued by Ivan not once, not twice, but three times. She did get to wheedle the secret of his immortality out of Koshei, how very typically devious and female of her, but all that got her was allowing Ivan and his brothers-in-law to dash about and have more brave manly adventures conquering it. Mama would have been much happier had Marya been the one to lop the monster’s head off at the end.

Unsurprisingly after all that, I thought that the point of the whole thing was the new crown Marya Morevna got when she and Ivan finally got it together. Headdeskheaddeskheaddesk, says Mama, who doesn’t think she is going to have much luck persuading me that the heroine was supposed to be Baba Yaga, who also made an appearance in the second half. Nondescript headgear, the big nose and the one tooth do not compete with sparkly outfits in my eyes, even if Baba Yaga does have four fabulous horses at her command.

Naturally, my Slightly Obsessed Big Brother thought the animal characters were the best bit. In this he is generally excellently served by Russian fairy tales, where talking magical animals are frequently central, and especially excellently served by this retelling, which had foolish frogs, timid mice, clever sparrows, and earthy toads at its disposal. And, I would like to point out to Mama, all of these were female. Mama, however, does not feel that they count, not being human females after all, even if one of the toads did offer to marry Ivan if he didn’t find his Marya.

Still, that’s fairy tales for you. I really don’t know what Mama was expecting. And on the upside were the moments of rather good acting that broke out. Mama particularly enjoyed Koschei, who managed to be not just frightening, but also pathetic, and at the same time the sort of massively irritating person you actively want something faintly unpleasant to happen to all in one bewigged package.

And what’s this? A plot? Well, ok, it is a fairy tale so it rambles around a bit but still, a story with more than one basic episode is almost confusing after so many years of paring Cinderella down to the bone to fit in the business with the ghost, the underpants and the mystery parcel belonging to Buttons. Where were the broad innuendos? The cunning interplay of the traditional story and the latest pop songs? The VERY LOUD soundsystem? The fancy sets and the many set changes? The pyrotechnics? The audience participation? The men dressed as women? The singalong? Not… actually… necessary for an afternoon’s enjoyment, you say?

Well, Mama remains skeptical about that as these aspects do serve to remove her attention from involuntary feminist critique. But we certainly do not and will definitely be going back to the Historical and Ethnographic Theatre to see some of the other performances. Vassilya the Beautiful sounds suitably focused on pretty dresses and prince charmings to me. Mama is nodding with suspiciously enthusiastic agreement…

More Information

The theatre’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Baba Yaga, witch, crone and archetype. 

Address: 3 Ulitsa Rudnevoi, Moscow, 129327

Performances: The performances of plays probably more interesting for adults Thursday through Sunday at 7pm. Children’s shows, including but by no means limited to Marya Morevna and Koschei the Deathless, are on Saturdays and Sundays at 12 noon.

Ticket prices: Between 300 roubles (£3) and 800 roubles (£8) depending on where you sit. Oddly, there is no information about how you hire a box.

Public Transport: The nearest station to the Historical and Ethnographic Theatre is actually the overland train station. You want to get one of the local elektrichka trains out of Yarolslavskaya Station (metro Komsomolskaya) and get off at Losinostrovskaya. If you head straight out of the station and keep going down the road, the theatre will be a couple of minutes walk on your left.

The nearest metro is Babushkinskaya, and from there it is either a good 20 minutes walk straight up Menjinskovo Ulitsa or you can get the 124, 174, or 238 buses or the 88 or 38 marshutka and get off at the station. The theatre is on a parallel road. You need the last wagon of the train, turn right into the underpass and right up the stairs, cross over Minjinskovo Ulitsa to the bus stop on the other side (or turn left and keep walking, if that’s your decision).

By other means: Well, you might be able to park in the station car park.

Wander Mum