Children’s Film Festival – The Ugly Duckling

Children’s Film Festival – The Ugly Duckling

This weekend at Northwest Film Forum, the Children’s Film Festival Seattle is wrapping up their ten-day extravaganza of family-friendly programming from around the world. The final day of programming, Sunday the 6th, will repeat some of the highlights from the previous week. Included in this line-up is the charming and impressive Russian film The Ugly Duckling, which I recommend anyone see if they can.

Director and writer Garri Bardin spent six years on this stop-motion animation reimagining of the Hans Christian Anderson story of a misfit bird who grows from being an outcast into a beautiful swan. Bardin has won many awards for his short animated films, including the Golden Palm for Best Short Film at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, for Vykrutasy. This is his first full-length feature, and it definitely piqued my interest in seeing the rest of his work.

In this version of the tale, our main character is brought into a barnyard coop of chickens, ducks, and geese by a rooster who finds a large egg just outside their fence, and thinks it will mean a strapping young chick for his nest. What they get is an awkward, featherless, kooky little bird whose different appearance and attitude mean that no one will take care of him. This particular coop of birds is very fond of singing and dancing, but any attempts for the new addition to join in inevitably end in disaster.

The film does not shy away from showing the cruelty of the way the birds in the coop treat the homely, bald little bird in their midst. The birds are both verbally and physically abusive. (A father seated behind me at my screening had to reassure his young daughter that there would be a happy outcome when she sadly said “This is not a sweet movie.” It gets sweet at the end!) The “ugly duckling” sings a song of woe many times before he finds happiness and acceptance outside of this awful group. The music in the film all comes from the ballets of Tschaikovsky,  with the duckling’s lament very fittingly set to the tune of the “Swan Theme” from Swan Lake. Other songs from Tschaikovsky’s works are peppered throughout the film, to great dramatic effect. One might not expect the music to work so well with the type of animation on display here, but it does.

This is stop-motion animation of the sort that I hope someone will always have the skill and patience to make, where the hours and years of labor from human hands can truly be seen in the materials coming to life on the screen. How much time and skill must it have taken to get all of those feathers to move just so on screen? Between intricate sequences with lines of dancing birds, several encounters with a very determined and swiftly-moving fox, and the beauty of the flying swans, all 75 minutes of the film are packed with action. The film is also packed with personality—Bardin creates such a bizarre and endearing character in his little “duckling” that I was almost disappointed when the gorgeous white plumage came along.

The Ugly Duckling is in Russian with subtitles in both English and French. The story can easily be followed by children who might not be able to read the subtitles. It screens on Sunday at 1: 00 at Northwest Film Forum. As the film is without a distributor at this time, consider taking this opportunity!

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