Yuri Norstein’s animated short “Tale of Tales” is only a half-hour long, and available on YouTube. Check it out; it’s well worth the watch.
The short film is based on an old Russian lullaby, sung at the beginning of the movie as a baby suckles at his mother’s breast. Here’s an English translation:
Baby, baby, rock-a-bye
On the edge you mustn’t lie
Or the little grey wolf will come
And will nip you on the tum,
Tug you off into the wood
Underneath the willow-root.
A series of parallel narratives follow, tied together through the little gray wolf, who watches the horror of war and the tranquility of domestic life unfold equally before his eyes. There is an adorably disconsolate jump-roping bull. Men and women dance. Soldiers die.
And the little gray wolf does steal the baby. It cries and cries, and as he tries to rock it to sleep, it only cries harder. The movie ends shrouded in uncertainty.
Norstein attempted to make a movie that would unfold the way memories appear in the mind as they are remembered. He comes close, closer than anyone in the free world. “Tale of Tales” is a movie well studied in the special Russian sort of suffering — foreign to Americans — but that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said gave his people a “spiritual development of such intensity that the Western system in its present state of spiritual exhaustion does not look attractive.”
And “Tale of Tales” is alien to Western cartoons. Many film scholars consider it the best animated film in existence. And it may very well be — unless matched against the director’s other major achievement, “Hedgehog in the Fog.”
This monumentally successful animated short so captured the Russian imagination when it came out in 1975 that Kiev erected a monument to the hedgehog in 2011 and both films received a shout-out at the 2014 Winter Olympics, alongside other Russian greats like Fyodor Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy.
Norstein is still alive, but he hasn’t made a movie since “Tale of Tales.” He’s too busy attempting to animate Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” which he believes is fundamental to the Russian understanding of art. He’s been working on it for nearly forty years, and has freely admitted to curious interviewers that he is nowhere near finished — and may never finish.
But the Russian aptitude for suffering keeps spurring him to try.