No firebirds for Ivan Tsarevitch this time around, but there is a princess. Michel Ocelot has a keen appreciation for folklore, but he generally takes what he likes and alters the rest to suit his tastes. The characters of his Tales of the Night/Dragons et princesses pseudo-franchise do the same. The old projectionist and his two young friends still meet in the bankrupt revival theater to share visions of films they would like to make in Ocelot’s Ivan Tsarevitch and the Changing Princess: Four Enchanting Tales (trailer here), which screens during the 2017 New York International Children’s Film Festival.
In a curious inversion, the four tales start with the most compelling and deeply resonant of the bunch. The Mistress of Monsters tells the story of a beleaguered little slave girl who comes to understand the power she holds to command the monsters imprisoning her tribe, with the help of a Jiminy Cricket-like rat. The starkness of this tale is particularly well suited to Ocelot’s sophisticated yet Spartan silhouette style of animation (in the tradition of Lotte Reiniger’s Adventures of Prince Achmed).
The next two tales, involving and a reluctant young pirate who happens to own an extraordinarily good mousing cat and a different sort of sorcerer’s apprentice are quite pleasant, but maybe a little pat. However, the concluding title tale is quite a memorable twist on fairy tale courtships. To save his father, a poor but noble Tsar, Ivan Son-of must acquire a chain of unobtainable treasures for a series of covetous tsars. The final treasure is the cursed Changing Princess, but, much to her surprise, they fall in love instead. Rather than complicating matters, she might just be able to make her curse save his father and secure their happiness.
It is almost misleading to use the term “silhouette” to describe Ocelot’s animation for these fables, because his backdrops are so ornately designed and his use of color is so lush and rich. These are just lovely films. However, there is a bit of sameness to each tale, because the all tend to hit similar emotional beats. Frankly, the fifty-some minute running time might be about right for an Ocelot fable compilation film.