Sometimes it seems as if our culture pushes every celebration of winter into Christmastime. But winter is a long season, and the inspiration for a wealth of fables and fairy stories over the centuries. When it comes to the movies, the snow-drenched fantasy modern audiences are most familiar with is probably Disney’s Frozen, nominally based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Frozen wasn’t the first cinematic stab at that story, however, nor is “The Snow Queen” the only such tale to make it onto film. If you’ve enjoyed Frozen – or if you have more traditional tastes – here are a few more frosty fairy films to give a look before March 21:
The Snow Maiden (1952, Russia)
The Snow Maiden was originally an 1873 play written by the great Russian playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, inspired by fairy tales told to him by his nanny growing up. For such a comparatively recent and literary effort, the bittersweet tale of Snegurochka, daughter of Spring and Ded Moroz (a Father Christmas figure), has a rawness and a preoccupation with nature that help it seem of much more ancient vintage. The play was later adapted by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov into an opera, and it was this opera that Soyuzmultfilm studio animated for 1952’s The Snow Maiden, a Christmas favorite in Russia to this day. At 70 minutes, it’s brisker than many would expect of an opera. Working, as they did, in Stalinist Russia, directors Ivan Ivanov-Vano and Aleksandra Snezhko-Blotskaya weren’t working in the most nurturing or permissive environment, and if you find rotoscoping to be a limiting form of animation, be warned: nearly everything human in The Snow Maiden was done with that technique. But there is some lovely animation of animals and forest goblins throughout, and some astonishingly intricate background paintings. Small highlights of color pop like fireworks amidst the cold tones of snow and night. These visual strengths, connected to Korsakov’s music and the fundamentals of the story, offset the often stiff expressions and blocking, the result being an uneven but moving adaptation of Ostrovsky’s play.
The Twelve Months (1956, Russia)
Ivan Ivanov-Vano has been called the father of Russian animation, and he visited fairy tale themes throughout his career. Not long after adapting The Snow Maiden, he (and co-director Mikhail Botov) took another play based on folklore, this time one by Samuil Marshak: The Twelve Months, the story of a poor girl’s chance encounter with the spirits of the twelve months around a nighttime fire on New Year’s Eve. It can be read as more nakedly in service to Soviet propaganda than The Snow Maiden; a subplot concerning a semiliterate queen and her court does no favors to royalty or the bourgeoisie. Ironically, the film opens with an extended animal sequence straight out of Disney. There’s nice animation done with these critters, and while The Twelve Months relies heavily on rotoscoping, the character designs are pushed a bit more, allowing for stronger facial expression in the comic relief and some imposing nobility to the twelve brother months. Clocking in at just under an hour, it makes for an easy and charming watch.
The Snow Queen (1957, Russia)
If The Twelve Months could be taken as partisan in the Cold War, animator Lev Atamanov’s production of The Snow Queen ended up the diplomat of Soviet cartoons. Andersen’s seven-part tale has a lot packed into it, and this film retains every major incident of Gerda’s journey to rescue her friend Kay. At 64 minutes, it’s a tight abridgement, so tight that I sometimes wished it would take a bit more time to breathe. There’s something doll-like to most of the human cast that keeps them from properly emoting, a serious liability when time is so short. But the Snow Queen herself cuts a powerful figure, towering over mere mortals and appearing carved from an ice crystal. Gerda’s reindeer friend is every bit the peer of Bambi’s majestic father from Disney. And Atamanov’s montage of a finale knows how to sell a happy ending. The Snow Queen broke through the Iron Curtain in the 50s when Universal-International distributed it across America. With a dubbed cast including Tommy Kirk and Sandra Dee (and a replacement musical score), the film became a Christmas TV tradition for a time, and its stunning visuals helped inspire none other than Hayao Miyazaki. Two subsequent English dubs have been released over the years, including a 1995 edition with Kirsten Dunst as Gerda and Kathleen Turner as the Snow Queen, though I recommend the original Russian if you can find it.
The Snow Queen (1967, Russia)
As is the way of fairy tales, The Snow Queen has inspired many adaptations over time, each with its own idiosyncrasies. If the animated 1957 take opted to keep almost everything Andersen wrote in abridged form, Gennadi Kazansky’s live action production a decade later retained fewer adventures but expanded on those it kept, focusing in on Gerda’s visit to the prince and princess and her capture by bandits. This version also carves out a role for Hans Christian Andersen himself, as Gerda and Kay’s beloved storyteller who weaves himself in and out of their journey. The Snow Queen’s role is expanded from the fairy tale, both directly and through her counselor (another unsubtle jab at Western capitalism). This film has one of the worst animal puppets I’ve ever seen in a movie as the reindeer, but it’s colorful, good-humored, and benefits greatly from Natalia Klimova’s turn as the titular villainess and Olga Viklandt’s boisterous bandit chieftain.
The Snow Maiden (1968, Russia)
When Alexander Ostrovsky’s 150th birthday came in 1968, a fresh adaptation of The Snow Maiden was commissioned, this time a live action effort by the actor-director Pavel Kadochnikov (Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible). This production runs an hour-and-a-half long, and its musical numbers look more to folk music than Korsakov’s opera. The staging of these numbers, and many nonmusical sequences, give the film more vitality and movement than the earlier animated adaptation. On the other hand, cross-cutting between location shoots in a real forest and woodlands recreated in a studio may have a charm reminiscent of the Hammer horror films of the same decade, but they make for less impressive environments. A dark turn near the end for one of the romantic attachments can make for uncomfortable viewing too. But Kadochnikov’s The Snow Maiden is carried through any rough patches by a wonderful cast. The director cameos as Tsar Berendey, but Yevgenia Filonova’s perpetually curious turn as Snegurochka bring the snow maiden to life – and make her ultimate fate all the more cutting.
Lumikuningatar (1986, Finland)
It’s not just the Russians who can make wintertime fairy tale films. Directed by Päivi Hartzell, Lumikuningatar is another adaptation of The Snow Queen, and the third time’s the charm. This is the best film adaptation of the story made to date (and I’m including Frozen in the count). It offers a more surreal, nightmarish flavor of fantasy. There’s no particular time or place for the setting, but a mishmash of elements from various eras. The Snow Queen’s palace is among the most fun locales, deliberately theatrical and with a sensibility not unlike Toho’s fantasy movies from the 60s. The episodes on the journey there can be genuinely chilling; the bandits, clad like a biker gang out of hell, have a terrifying musical number. But it’s what Lumikuningatar does for the protagonist that puts it over and above the rest. In earlier adaptations, Gerda often ends up lost amidst all the fantasy around her. This film keeps the young heroine in focus and fleshes out the emotional toll her efforts to save Kay place upon her, making the ending all the sweeter.
The Polar Bear King (1991, Norway)
The Polar Bear King comes from the collection of fairy tales by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jorgen Møe, Norway’s answer to the Brothers Grimm. It tells the story of Prince Valemon, heir to the throne of Summerland and cursed to be a bear by day when he rejects the advances of a power-hungry witch. In the kingdom of Winterland, Valemon finds his true love, but their wedded bliss is dogged by the persistent sorceress. Valemon’s bear form was brought to life by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. He may not be their finest puppet – judging from some of the interior sets, I suspect the film didn’t have much of a budget – but he gets the job done. And even with limited resources, the staging by director Ola Solum is dynamic and surprisingly warm for such a wintry story. In its approach to adapting a fairy tale, The Polar Bear King is possibly the most simple and childlike movie on this list, but in that simplicity is an undeniable charm.