“Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf”,
a feature film with special bonus materials on DVD.
BreakThru Films | SE-MA-FOR Studios (101 804-GB).
Director: Suzie Templeton
Philharmonia Orchestra/Mark Stephenson.
Release date: November 2006.
What can one expect of a new presentation of Peter and the Wolf? In this case, we had an animated film from BreakThru Films, directed by Suzie Templeton, a young director who had previously won a BAFTA award with her Royal College of Art graduation film, Dog – a work she describes as “extremely dark”. Peter and the Wolf is a stop-frame animated film (so was Dog), no doubt inspired by Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit series. Prepared in Lodz (Poland) under production designer Marek Skrovecki, it involved an amazingly large team of Polish and British sculptors, artists and technicians who spent more than a year preparing complex sets and puppets. The film has been conceived to be performed in a concert hall with a live orchestra, without any narration or dialogue. And, to be frank, for this reviewer anyway, this worked beautifully as the original text has an increasingly old-fashioned feel. Gone are all the references to previous narrations, like past ghosts. Instead, the visuals are so strong that a narration would have been quite superfluous anyway.
Nothing quite prepared me for what I did see! Whoever would have thought of the bird as a dishevelled old crow, barely able to fly, of the cat as an elderly and very fat tabby, happier sleeping on Grandfather as he takes his afternoon nap than chasing birds? And why didn’t I think it might be winter and so cold, snowy and frozen? After all, that’s when wolves come out, isn’t it? And why wouldn’t the duck and Peter enjoy some fun sliding on the ice-covered pond?
The level of inventiveness was quite outstanding, the camera angles superb. The subtle expressions on the faces of all the parties was very revealing. The detail of the old house and the make-shift wall protecting it from all-comers put the best excesses of Waterworld in the shade. Without giving the game away for those yet to see this gem, not everything goes to plan. Sorry, very little goes to plan. In fact, it’s the triumph of luck over adversity. At one point, in catching the wolf, Peter ends up hanging down one side of a branch caught up in the rope as a counterweight to the wolf whose tail is firmly caught on the other side by the rope. The two struggle to get the upper hand. And then it begins to dawn on the (let’s be fair none too bright) wolf that if instead of trying to get away from Peter, he were to approach him... The look in the wolf’s eyes at this point of realisation was supremely well captured.
And the music? The quintessence of Prokofiev: the open and closed themes; the endless witty cadences (the snapping of the wolf’s jaws are perhaps the shortest in music); the pastiche waltz of Peter’s theme; to name but a few. The performance on the night, however, was not up to the task. This piece works best if the orchestra enters into the story and tells a tale itself, by turn exaggerating, frightening, wheedling, pompous just as if the instrumentalists were the narrator. Indeed, at a deep level they are. The first entry was delightful, indeed hardly noticed, but perfectly timed. Unfortunately, other timings were less good, especially the snapping of the wolf’s jaw. And generally, they did not try to tell the story, they were too polished, too measured. They wouldn’t have kept my grandchildren on the edge of their seats, breathless.
Curiously, too, the storyline loses its way at the entry of the hunters. In this version, they look like two militiamen, seen previously, on a day out, as ugly and brutal as only soldiers could be in the Soviet Union at that time, so the film seems to say. But why the story needed such embroidery and rather heavy-handed allusions did not come out. There must have been a point – but it was not well made. Was this an anti-hunting lobby? Was it some allusion to man the hunter, far worse than Mr Wolf, poor thing, who after all was only being a wolf. Who knows? And in the end, it didn’t matter. The overall film was too good – indeed, dare I say, a classic? UK reader’s will have the chance to see for themselves when it is shown on Channel 4 over the Christmas period.
BACK TO SUMMARY
From Noëlle Mann’s interview with director Suzie Templeton
I called Suzie Templeton a week after the London première. She was finishing off the editing and post-production in Norway, in preparation for the DVD release early in October.
I asked her what was the significance of the hostile world around Peter, the derelict village, nasty kids, mocking people and the two thugs with guns? Her reasons were complex and it had taken her a long time to come up with this solution. She had wanted to create a contrast (which she could exploit artistically) between the corrupt and unpleasant human world against which Peter stood alone, and the magic animal world where he had his friends.
It allowed her to emphasise Peter’s own free decisions: Peter deliberately goes against his grandfather’s orders, first by stealing the key to the gate which will allow him to open up the “magic world”; then, just as in Prokofiev’s story, he escapes out of his grandfather’s house to capture the wolf. Peter’s own free mind intervenes again at the end of the film when, standing against the nastiness of the world he lives in, he finds the strength to frustrate their expectations and sets the wolf free.
I queried the nature of the village thugs, who, on the night of the première, were interpreted in a different way by various viewers. Whereas I saw them as mindless brutes (although not knowing why they were there at all), others perceived them as policemen or soldiers (such as the above reviewer). “They are neither” Suzie laughed, “in spite of their army surplus store clothes”. She conceived them just as thugs with a gun, as representative of the brutal world against which Peter stood in utter loneliness. They were created to emphasize Peter’s isolation in the real world.
For Suzie, it had been a “very difficult and gripping work which lasted five years full time”, but through which she had learnt a great deal; altogether an enriching experience. She was bowled over by her encounter with Peter, and hoped that her film might help a new generation of kids to discover Prokofiev’s gem, as a magic experience that could nevertheless belong to their own times.