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Review: Marcell Jankovics’s Son of the White Mare on Arbelos Films Blu-ray

Son of the White Mare is a masterpiece of the medium that deserves a place of honor on every collector’s shelf.

4.5

Son of the White Mare

During a 2020 one-on-one interview conducted at the Hungarian National Film Archive, Marcell Jankovics recounts a meeting with a photographer whose son was bewitched by the director’s 1981 film Son of the White Mare. The photographer, curious about how Jankovics managed to craft the animated wonder, said that his son told him that “he dreams like this.” And to the interviewer, Jankovics says, “If there is a true acknowledgement of an artist’s intentions, then this is it.”

This cuts to the heart of the film’s inimitable sense of magic and storytelling, which spins ancient folklore, modern art, Marxist thought, and a cosmic perspective into a feast of free-flowing images that eventually collapse in on themselves to form new and ever more entrancing moments of visual poetry. Though these styles, influences, and concerns are all an inextricable and important part of Son of the White Mare’s DNA, it’s Jankovics’s ability to render the visual language of dreams—what some have dubiously referred to as “psychedelia”—using the tools of the animator that makes the film an unqualified masterpiece of the medium.

Based on a László Arany poem and traditional Eurasian Steppe mythology, Son of the White Mare opens with a flurry of jagged black shapes and dissonant, clangoring ambience as the titular horse gives birth to her third human son, Treeshaker, who suckles at her teat for years on end as she regales him with the story of her former life as the Snow Queen. The tale she tells concerns their kingdom, which was destroyed when her husband, the Sky King, after marrying off their three daughters, foolishly set free three terrible dragons that kidnapped the princesses and subsequently threw the world into disarray. Upon reaching adulthood, Treeshaker sets forth and encounters his two older brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, who join forces to slay the beasts, free the princesses, and set things right.

The film credits the memory of the “Scythians, Huns, Avars, and other nomadic peoples” as inspiration, and while its story isn’t particularly rich or captivating, the splendiferous images render it an afterthought. Building upon the Yellow Submarine-like style he adapted for 1973’s Johnny Corncob (a financial success and Hungary’s first feature-length animated film), Jankovics throws caution to the wind by fully doing away with black outlines and doubling down on expressionism—defining Son of the White Mare’s bold yet yielding shapes in contrasting colors. Forgoing finer detail work like shading also frees Jankovics from the constraints of a more traditionally representational animation style, but the backgrounds are full of texture to add a necessary contrast to the “flat,” free-form figure designs. All of this combined has the effect of a visual tapestry in which every element is but a piece of the larger whole: borderless cells in the unending, undulating fabric of the universe.

The elemental nature of the epic narrative and style also influences the visual content and ultimate message of the film. Son of the White Mare bursts with sexual imagery: muscular buttocks, heaving breasts, and dangling scrotums. This provides a heavy contrast to the design of the evil humanoid dragons, specifically the third, which is stylized as a brutalist collection of indistinguishable square columns representing its many heads—as if cruel, faceless, alienating modernity is what’s tearing this natural world of effusive color and god-like heroes apart. This obsession with the fleshly mechanisms of reproduction underlines that Son of the White Mare, like all fables, is about the oldest and most primary human urges, creation and destruction, and Jankovics manifests that endless cosmic cycle as his own animated dreamscape in this, one of the absolute pinnacles of the medium.

Image/Sound

Arbelos Films’s disc presents Son of the White Mare in a 4K restoration from the film’s original 35mm camera negative. Print damage is negligible, the pastel-like colors are deep and rich, and the impressive cleanup allows the film’s textures and handmade qualities to shine through. The noticeable film grain and visual quirks of the animation process make Son of the White Mare feel profoundly alive in a way that modern animation has lost almost entirely. Sound has also been adapted from the original elements and the disc give full, round weight to the ambient, electronic music by István Vajda and vocal work that thunders with the dreamy resonance of a cast of classically trained actors telling a bedtime story.

Extras

Arbelos has assembled a treasure trove of Marcell Jankovics’s earlier works to accompany Son of the White Mare. These include the feature-length Johnny Corncob, the 1974 Oscar-nominated short Sisyphus, 1977’s The Struggle, and a 1968 Air India ad in which you can very much detect the raw material of the director’s later masterpiece. The disc also includes the enlightening 30-minute interview with Jankovics mentioned at the top of this review, archival newsreel footage from the making of Johnny Corncob, and a U.S. theatrical trailer. Accompanying the disc is a booklet with excellent new essays by professors Eleanor Cowen and Charles Solomon that give some much-appreciated context on Pannonia Film Studio and Jankovics’s place in the history of Hungarian animation and the medium more broadly. The limited edition run of 1,000 units comes with a beautiful slipcase and 11×17 cut-out poster.

Overall

One of the absolute pinnacles of animation, Son of the White Mare is a masterpiece of the medium that deserves a place of honor on every collector’s shelf.

Cast: György Cserhalmi, Vera Pap, Mari Szemes, Gyula Szabó, Ferenc Szalma, Szabolcs Tóth, Ottó Ulmann Director: Marcell Jankovics Screenwriter: László György, Marcell Jankovics Distributor: Arbelos Films Running Time: 81 min Rating: NR Year: 1981 Release Date: June 8, 2021 Buy: Video

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