There are many great animation artists that are seldom talked about in English from every corner of the globe.
Inessa Alexeyevna Kovalevskaya is considered a leading director of animated musical works. She is best known for directing the highly popular “Bremen Town Musicians.” I hope this article will introduce you to one of history’s great women animation directors and her films.
Born in Moscow on March 1, 1933, Kovalevskaya’s childhood and adolescence involved the study of music and art. While growing up during the second world war took a toll on her education, she eventually graduated from school in 1950 and studied art and drama at a variety of universities and schools. After graduating, she spent a couple months in theatre before becoming a junior editor at the Soviet State Committee for Cinematography.
In 1961 she began studying film at Mosfilm, and in 1964 she became an assistant director at the puppet film division of Soyuzmultfilm. In 1965, she made her solo directorial debut with the stop motion animation “Automation.” This is a film about a family’s problems involving a malfunctioning vending machine set up outside their home. Already in her first film, the sound is used as a powerful element, contributing a great deal to the atmosphere and feel, even though it’s not a musical like all her films would eventually become.
After this she moved to the hand-drawn animation division of Soyuzmultfilm, starting out once again as an assistant director. In 1967 she directed her first hand-drawn movie, the film “Four From One Yard,” about a couple of animals who are quarreling over who stole their food. A more conventional cartoon, it remains a unique but not particularly exciting work from a director who would soon be known for her musicals.
In 1969, Kovalevskaya would direct what would become her most popular work, “The Bremen Town Musicians.” The story, a loose adaptation of the titular fairy tale, features a man and his animals who travel the lands, performing their music and getting involved in a situation with the royals of the village they visit. It’s one of the first animated musicals made in Russia. The short was very popular within the Soviet Union, with the soundtrack record selling millions of records. Internally at Soyuzmultfilm, however, the animated musical was not met favorably. This led to difficulties for Kovalevskaya in gaining new work at the studio.
She briefly left Soyuzmultfilm to direct a puppet play for television before returning to the studio months later to direct “Katerok.” This is a musical about a little boat. From then until the end of production at Soyuzmultfilm in the early 2000’s, Kovalevskaya would dedicate herself to directing animated musicals. She worked with many artists over the years, granting them much creative freedom in contributing to the films. She created films in many styles, ranging from pop songs to explorations of classical music. Here are some notable films from her long career, with key contributors noted.
Bremen Town Musicians
A giant suitcase is being pulled by a donkey into town. Its contents? A band. An animated film where the music is as big a star as the story and animation, yet like all good films, there’s a lot to like. The art draws from a wide variety of sources, from children’s drawings to playing cards. Characters have distinct silhouettes and color palettes. Dialogue and story is told through music, and is about a traveling ensemble of musicians who after being thrown out of town, pretend to be robbers to teach the king of the town a lesson. A fun adventure and an essential russian animated film. Featuring composer Gennady Gladkov, writers Yuri Entin and Vasily Livanov, and production designer Max Zherebchevsky.
How the Little Lion and the Turtle Sang a Song
“How the Little Lion and the Turtle Sang a Song” is indeed about how the little lion and the turtle sang a song. A curious, kitten-like lion approaches a singing turtle. A simple but polished children’s cartoon about an unlikely friendship. The yellow backgrounds provide a sunny feeling, representing not just the sun, but also the friendship between the lion and the turtle. The turtle’s song is quite catchy, and the animation and art are quite polished. It’s a fun movie that children and fans of good, simple cartoons are sure to enjoy, but makes for poor material for people who write about cartoons on the internet. Featuring music by Gennady Gladkov, a script by Sergey Kozlov, and production design by Boris Akulininichev.
In 1976, she directed “Children’s Album,” an adaption of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Op. 39, “Children’s Album.” As the film starts, we see some beautiful paintings of children playing the piano. It perfectly captures the name and idea of the musical work. At this point in time, most of Kovalevskaya’s works would be based on classical music, beautifully illustrating the music and introducing the pieces to the viewer. The sections of the music become scenes adapting fairy tales, with the art and animation changing to fit the music. In this regard, it can be compared to Disney’s Fantasia. It’s a varied and beautiful work, rich in color and visuals which accompanies the music wonderfully. It’s like opening up a book of wonderful fairy tales. Tchaikovsky’s music has never looked this good. Featuring script from Kovalevskaya herself, set design by Irina Svetlitsa and Dmitry Anpilov, and music from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Dances of the Dolls
1985’s “Dances of the Dolls” is an adaptation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s piece of the same name. This cute animated short is about toys coming to life to entertain a sick girl. Featuring richly colored backgrounds and delicate animation, it’s another excellent animated film, my personal favorite of her works. I think the best works of Kovalevskaya brings the emotion of music alive with the design, colors, animation, backgrounds etc all working together tell a narrative around the music. Once again, her works during this period could be compared to something like Fantasia, however Kovalevskaya’s work aren’t as stuck in the Disney style, and thus the art and animation get closer to the feel of music. Featuring a script by Kovalevskaya herself, production design by Galina Shakitskaya, and music by Dmitri Shostakovich.
The Gnomes and the Mountain King
Her last films made after the fall of the Soviet Union consist of both classical music adaptations and pop musicals similar to her late 60’s/early 70’s works. Films like “Adventures of Kuzya the Grasshopper” and especially 2001’s “Dora-Dora-pomidora“ seem almost like a throwback to the golden age of Soyuzmultfilm, featuring art and stories which seem reminiscent of the most popular work from the studio’s history.
I think “The Gnomes and the Mountain King” is the best of her work during this later period. A classical music adaptation of various tunes by Edvard Grieg, this film features a boy and a goat following some gnomes into a cave where the ghoulish mountain king lives. While not as richly detailed or delicately animated as previous efforts, it’s a very nice movie with a dense mountain landscape, which I think captures the feeling of Grieg’s music very well. These mountains just seem rich with history, mysteries and creatures roaming around. Featuring a screenplay by Kovalevskaya herself, production design by Galina Shakitskaya, and music by Edvard Grieg.
Inessa Alexeyevna Kovalevskaya’s works vary from catchy pop musicals to beautifully illustrated works of classical music. Her direction allows the music and visuals to harmonize together into a wonderful whole. Hopefully this article will encourage you to experience her animated films for yourself, thank you for reading.