The Stolen Princess
Director: Oleg Malamuzh
Cast: Oleksiy Zavgorodniy, Nadya Dorofeeva
Based on Pushkin’s age-old fairy tale, Ruslan and Lyudmila, this Ukrainian animated film does decently on some counts but fails miserably on others. First off, it would have made perfect sense to retain the original language (with subtitles in English and other tongues) for the worldwide release. While listening to the characters rattle off their lines in quick succession in the English dub, one feels a bit a disconnected with the corresponding action taking place on screen.
Although it is an ancient tale set in the time of princesses, knights, and kings, the dialogue is infused with a steampunk effect. Casual back-and-forth and modern slang abound in the narrative, making you question the era in which the feature is actually set. Since I watched the dubbed version and not the subtitled one, it is hard to tell whether the original in Ukrainian unfolds in the same vein.
The thing that stands out in The Stolen Princess is its animation. As far as visuals go, there is not one disappointing aspect in the whole 95-minute story. Despite the dubbed version containing English songs, there are two separate sets of sequences that impress. The first has Ruslan taking Mila on a mini-tour of the city after they have fended off some criminals; the music encapsulates the surrounding beauty as the duo sits on a rooftop to soak in a crimson sunset. The second involves the Cat as he kicks out intruders from his treehouse; set to the tune of a famous classical piece, the unsuspecting trespassers are booted out in shadow puppetry style.
The film begins with an epic battle between a sorcerer by the name of Chornomor, a wizard, and a princess. The fight ends in tragedy as Chornomor turns the latter into stone. The sorcerer derives power from the love of a princess, by turning her into a statue. Centuries later, the same legend is enacted by Ruslan and his troupe.
A struggling theatre artist, Ruslan dreams of being a valiant knight someday. His social group includes his playwright friend, Pechersky, and a deeply intuitive sparrow called Fin. On the other side of town, Princess Mila (Lyudmila) is adamant about not adhering to her father’s wishes about marriage. He coaxes and cajoles, resorting even to emotional blackmail (invoking her mother’s sudden passing, etc), but she does not relent.
When he gives her an ultimatum, she flees the castle in search of an adventure. As she roams the unfamiliar streets, two thugs attempt to rob her of her necklace. She runs into Ruslan while fending off the thieves singlehandedly. In a bid to impress the young lady, Ruslan pretends to be a wandering knight. They eventually fight the offenders back and form an instant connection. But just before their love story can take off, Mila is abducted by Chornomor. The king arrives shortly thereafter and demands to know the whereabouts of his daughter. Ruslan is sent to the dungeon, as the emperor announces Mila’s hand to anyone who can bring her back from the evil sorcerer.
Like most fairy tales, Princess Lyudmila has no agency to speak of. Following her kidnapping, her role is limited to sitting by and twiddling her thumbs as her knight in shining armour goes above and beyond to save her. Even though she messes with the sorcerer’s head by stealing his hat of invisibility, her main preoccupation is with her undying love for Ruslan as opposed to devising a plausible plan of escape. The depiction of such traditional gender roles in animated films involving castles and kingdoms is getting cliché. So much so, there isn’t a good enough reason to take your kids for the next film.
Even the attempted humour in The Stolen Princess barely makes it past average levels. The only decently funny moments involve the Cat (and he appears in the narrative for not more than five or ten minutes). Though it is visually stunning and employs the use of good music, the film fails to break away from its shackles of predictable storytelling and characterisation.