With the music of Igor Stravinsky and Max Von Sydow as the devil, Judge Bill Treadway thinks this little-seen animated treasure has something for just about everyone.
Stravinsky's legendary fable comes alive in this Emmy-winning animated program.
R. O. Blechman's The Soldier's Tale ranks with Walt Disney's Fantasia as one of the greatest attempts at crafting animation out of a renowned and beloved classical music piece. Melding the music of Igor Stravinsky with a play by C. F. Ramuz, Blechman's film is such a visual feast and takes such chances that one can overlook its few flaws.
The story is simple, dealing with an ordinary Russian soldier who finds himself lost in the fields while returning from an unnamed war. (I suspect it is World War I, but by not naming a specific war, the film carries a timeless quality.) Equipped with his bag and beloved violin, he encounters a stranger who wishes to purchase the instrument. That stranger turns out to be the Devil (voiced by the great Max Von Sydow), and the violin, which he buys, contains the soldier's soul.
Stravinsky's piece was written in 1918, as Russia was experiencing the early stages of the aftermath of the great Bolshevik revolution that ousted the Czar and his family from power. To celebrate the 100th birthday of the great composer, PBS commissioned a fifty-minute animated special. They chose renowned animator R. O. Blechman to write, direct, and supervise the project. The finished film premiered in 1984 on the Great Performances program to wide acclaim. A 1985 VHS release from MGM/UA helped give it some extra exposure, but for the past 18 years, Blechman's film has been a lost masterpiece, rarely seen if at all.
Blechman takes no prisoners with his visual approach. He uses a variety of different styles to tell his story, ranging from abstract collage to beautiful hand-drawn animation, varying the style according to the mood of Stravinsky's music. His specialty is line animation, and that style makes up the majority of his film. He demonstrates that simplicity in animation is not a curse but an asset, particularly when the animator knows how to use it. While the film works well on the small screen, I can only imagine how much richer it would have been on a large theatrical screen in 35mm.
There are some flaws, as I mentioned above. The film's ending is a bit too pat, especially for a composer as complicated and dense as Stravinsky. Blechman was probably under a specific time limit and had to end the story as he does. I would have appreciated an extra five minutes or so, which would have allowed the story to play out organically rather than abruptly, and the blend of animation and music is so mesmerizing the extra length would have been welcome for its own sake. Also, the use of dialogue sometimes becomes a distraction; this might have been even better as a silent film.
Koch Vision presents The Soldier's Tale in a full-frame transfer. This is not one of Koch Vision's better efforts. While the picture is far from terrible, the print could have used some serious cleanup. The telltale signs of age are all present: scratches, specks, and other blemishes. The color scheme is alternately bright and muted, but since I have a feeling that was the effect Blechman was aiming for, I'll overlook it. The transfer appears to be the same one used for the 1985 MGM/UA home video release, and that is not what someone purchasing this disc wants.
Audio is much better. Both the surround mixes are satisfactory, but the 5.1 surround mix gives Stravinsky's music that extra kick that music buffs will love. There are a few crackling sounds, but that may be inherent to the original music recording rather than the source material.
Koch offers up some extra content, all of which is well worth spending your time on. First is a commentary track featuring R. O. Blechman, associate producer George Griffin, and animator Tessa David. The track is far from perfect. While Blechman is easily heard, Griffin's comments are poorly recorded and difficult to hear. David has a heavy European accent that makes it difficult to comprehend certain words. Still, Blechman has a great many stories and bits information to share, and if you can listen closely enough to the other participants, they share some unique insights as well. Just have your volume control in hand, as you will be adjusting the sound when necessary.
Also offered is "The World of R. O. Blechman," a half-hour compilation film comprising Blechman's best commercials, advertisements, and rare footage from his archives. Each segment can be screened separately, or you can choose to view them as a entire featurette. Some of the animation is downright brilliant, with a keen eye toward style and motion rather than fancy backgrounds or lavish visuals.
The Soldier's Tale is not a perfect film, but few films really are. It takes great courage to even attempt creating something visual out of a piece of music. I admire the courage it took to make this film and the hard work that went into it. Blechman's unique style and vision help bring the vigor and vitality of Stravinsky's work to glorious life. Other than Fantasia, I'd be hard pressed to find a better example of how to meld classical music and animation successfully.
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• Commentary by Writer-Director R. O. Blechman, Associate Producer George Griffin, and Animator Tessa David
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