While it is easy to recognize some of the stunning places that animation can transport you, the boundary-pushing nature of the art form was often slow to be recognized and embraced on a global scale. While Disney was busy releasing old-fashioned tales such as The Fox and The Hound (no shade intended, that movie is a classic) in 1981, mind-expanding psychedelic adventures such as the Hungarian fantasy film Son of the White Mare from director Marcell Jankovics never even received a proper release in the States. Based on various versions of a popular European folktale, the film beautifully blends animation, mythology, choreography, and spiritual symbolism into a drug-trip of a movie that has to be experienced to be understood. While the story may be rather pedestrian in its cyclical approach to conflict, the way in which the movie hypnotizes and wows in its execution raises it into the ranks of finest animated films ever made.
The tale begins with a young humanoid child being told all about his thrilling and tragic backstory from his mother, the Snow Queen disguised as a white horse who is raising him in the bowels of a giant tree. His father, the Sky King, once ruled a glorious kingdom that was destroyed by a trio of dragons unleashed from hell. The young child gains immense power from his mother and grows up to be the incredibly powerful Treeshaker, who embarks upon a quest to reclaim the kingdom from the dragons following the death of his mother. We learn that Treeshaker actually has two other siblings – Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer – who pale in comparison to him in pretty much every way imaginable. Jankovics does not put a lot of obvious humor in the film, but there are a good number of laughs derived from the slothful Stonecrumbler. Irontemperer is a bit more on the skillful side, but neither brother is able to compare to the heroic Treeshaker. The three brothers try to gain entrance to the Underworld, but they are going to have to jump through some hoops to accomplish this.
There is a fair comparison to make to the film playing out almost like a quest-driven video game in its plotting. This mostly involves Treeshaker descending into Hell, encountering princesses and saving them from dragons with an increasing number of heads each go-around. There is something very reassuring about this repetition of the mechanics that is given more depth through the symbolic significance of each development. Jankovics is working on a level far above everyone else where small aspects such as the Seven-Headed dragon represent the personification of the cruelties of war. You do not have to completely understand and analyze the visual language of the film, but the more you engage with it the deeper it will resonate for you. If you want to only take in the film at face value, you will still be rewarded with exciting altercations and the rise of a hero to his intended seat of power. The plot does not reinvent the wheel – it has been around for hundreds of years – but the manner in which it is told makes it fresh.
The animation style that Jankovics employs within this narrative is something to admire. By eschewing the typical black outlines of the characters, the characters are allowed to flow in and out of their surrounding environments so that every element of the image feels like an essential piece of the puzzle. The animation is not just “wild” and psychedelic for the sake of being different, but by choreographing the movements and allowing the artwork to move like it does the story is told in a more impactful manner. The film never condescends to the audience by lightening up on its meditation of the circular nature of time and space that ties in with the circular nature of the animation style. At 90 minutes in length, the film takes you on a lush journey through a mythological story that never overstays its welcome. Marcell Jankovics has skillfully crafted something that can work at its most basic level while simultaneously exploring deeper themes and symbolism if the audience is wanting to engage on that level. It is truly a work of art.
Son Of The White Mare comes to Blu-Ray courtesy of Arbelos with a fantastic 1080p transfer sourced from a director-approved digital restoration of the original camera negative which was scanned at 4K. The colors present in this transfer are outstanding with these vivid hues swirling amongst each other while maintaining crisp delineation. The textures of all of the environments look naturally filmic and give the series a nice sense of depth. One of the areas where the feature really shines is the fluidity of the character designs as they relate to the environment. Black levels are strong with no serious issue of banding or compression issues. This Blu-Ray provides a practically immaculate presentation for some of the most interesting animation to be unleashed upon the world.
This Blu-Ray comes with an DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio track in the original Hungarian (with optional English subtitles). Dialogue sounds perfectly clear without sound effects or the score trouncing on important information. The score from István Vajda adds an ominous note to the proceedings which is conveyed flawlessly here. The track handles atmospheric effects well all around. This is not a particularly dynamic presentation, but it presents everything accurately without much in the way of damage or other unwanted issues.
The Blu-Ray of Son Of The White Mare includes a booklet featuring the essay “The Film That Stands Alone” by animation historian Charles Solomon which gives some background information on Jankovics, the state of animation at the time, the narrative and the symbolism within some of the animation. There is also the essay “Animation Art In Context: Feature Films of Marcell Jankovics” by author Eleanor Cowen which provides a great amount of insight into Jankovics’ life and the evolution of animation over the years. Both of these pieces should be considered essential reading to further appreciate what is on screen. The on-disc special features are as follows:
- Early Works
- János Vitéz (Johnny Corncob) (1973): A 78-minute film newly restored in 4K that transcends the place of a simple supplement by telling a story of a young man who becomes a soldier but longs to return to the woman he loves. This was the first Hungarian animated film. The animation is visually splendid and the story never makes you lose interest.
- Sisyphus (1974): A two-minute version of the classic tale is provided here. The animation style is flowing with thick, bold lines depicting the act of rolling the boulder up the hill.
- The Struggle (1977): A nearly three-minute sequence that puts a twist on the sculpting of Michelangelo’s Statue of David.
- Dreams Of Wings (1968): A nine-minute Air India commercial that takes you around the world with some stunning animated locations.
- Brighter Colors: A 33-minute interview with director Marcell Jankovics recorded in 2020 in which he discusses his early entry into the field of animation, the animation style of Hungary, the cultural climate of the country that influenced his work, the creation of Son of the White Mare and much more that is worth digging into.
- Making of János Vitéz: A three-minute archival piece which features a young Jankovics discussing the process of bringing this first Hungarian animated film to life.
- U.S. Theatrical Trailer: A two-minute trailer is provided for Son Of The White Mare.
Son Of The White Mare is one of the most gorgeously animated psychedelic films to ever be created. The folktale-inspired story makes for an entertaining time, but it is the way in which it is told through visual artistry that makes it so impactful. From both an intellectual and emotional standpoint, this film proves to be a major hit. Arbelos has released a Blu-Ray with a practically flawless A/V presentation and an essential collection of supplements. The fact that these works are now widely available in such high quality feels like a minor miracle. Highly Recommended
Son Of The White Mare is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Arbelos has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.