After a lean and troubled wartime era, Walt Disney started the 50s with a trio of the studio’s most beloved films – Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. This was the Silver Era of Disney and it lasted until Uncle Walt passed away during production of The Jungle Book in 1966.
Around the same time across the Iron Curtain, Jiří Trnka, a Czech film maker referred to as the “Walt Disney of the East” was creating a stunning series of hand-crafted animated features. After an early career illustrating children’s books and learning puppetry, he made his own animated shorts at the end of WWII. His first film with stop motion puppet animation was The Czech Year (Špalíček), which detailed the rites and customs of a small Czech village. It was well-received internationally, picking up prizes in Paris and Venice.
After two more features, The Emperor’s Nightingale and Prince Bayaya, his next major work was Old Czech Legends, based on Alois Jirásek’s novel. Divided into seven parts, it takes us way back to the mythological foundation of the Czech nation. It opens with a dramatic note of despair as a tribe is mourning the death of their kind and noble leader, Forefather Čech. In a flashback, we see how they came to the Vltava after a long and arduous journey and rested near Říp mountain. Čech scaled the mountain alone and saw the bounteous and beautiful land all around him, and declared that this was the place for his people. In gratitude, they insist on naming the country after him.
The next stories follow the legendary rulers of Bohemia, from Čech’s successor, Krok, to a terrible battle between Prince Neklan’s people and a savage invasion from a neighbouring clan. We also meet the fair and wise Libuše, who is great at settling disputes between quarrelling clansmen. However, in those unenlightened days, the guys weren’t happy taking orders from a woman and demanded that she marry so they would have another guy to follow instead. Libuše has a vision of a ploughman with one broken sandal, who is brought to her on a white horse. The ploughman is Přemysl, and together the couple found the Přemyslid dynasty.
While this early Bohemia is portrayed as a promised land for the Czech people, it is also a wild and dangerous place, thick with mysterious forests where magical creatures and ferocious beasts lurk, looking very much like the woodland from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Fairies lure unsuspecting hunters and the wraith-like Lady Midday (Polednice) threatens to snatch away babies in the heat of the noon sun. The humble people are in the thrall of pagan Gods, worshipping the sun Goddess at solstice time and making sacrifices to appease Perun, the fearsome God of thunder and lightning.
All this is told through Trnka’s remarkable use of hand-carved wooden puppets and his mastery of cinematic technique, which takes on epic proportions when accompanied by Václav Trojan’s orchestral score. As with the films of stop-motion masters like Ray Harryhausen and Karel Zeman, the close-up work with homespun materials give the puppets a sense of tactile intimacy. It’s as if all those hours manipulating them, one tiny movement at a time for the camera, imbues the models with some aspect of the animator’s humanity. The puppets are remarkably emotive despite their fixed expressions as Trnka uses lighting, camera angles and music to evoke their feelings.
While the puppet work is superb, it wouldn’t be as effective if Trnka didn’t have such a firm grasp of filmmaking techniques. He employs a vast range of camera angles, evocative lighting, slow motion, subjective POV shots, flashbacks, and many other techniques to bring this mythical world to life. Trnka tells the stories mostly through song, dance and action rather than dialogue, creating some intensely cinematic set-pieces. There is a suspenseful scene where a young hunter faces up to a fearsome creature haunting the woods; a dream-like sequence where Libuše drifts through the forest glades towards her destiny; and a fierce climactic battle between the timid Neklan’s people and Prince Vlastislav’s ferocious warriors.
If there is one criticism, it is that Old Czech Legends largely lacks the moments of levity that offset the darker elements of the Disney classics. The tone Trnka strikes is awe-inspiring and patriotic, which can be a little wearying at times. However, few animated features create such a deep sense of time, in that these ancient stories are the myths that still contribute to how Czechs see themselves, part of a rich and turbulent history that the modern-day country is built upon.