Visually, Marcell Jankovics’ Son of the White Mare (1981), is on another level. If you grew up obsessed with shows like Xena and Hercules, though, and maybe even owned a VHS copy of their animated movie, Son of the White Mare is of that same, epic fantasy stock except more surreal and inventive with its imagery.
The other major difference, of course, is Son of the White Mare isn’t based on Greek or Roman mythology, but Hungarian folklore and begins, like all the best stories do, with three, fateful words: “once upon a time.” Once upon a time, there were three brothers who were happy to split their father’s lands between them. They also had no problem avoiding the locks he had declared off-limits. Their wives, however, were curious, and, like Eve (of Adam and Eve) before them, get punished for seeking knowledge.
Meanwhile, the brothers’ mother, the Snow Queen (Mari Szemes), turns into a horse (it happens) and gives birth to three sons. Only the youngest, Treeshaker (György Cserhalmi), is raised by her. Given how horrific Jankovics makes childbirth look it’s a wonder she survives the ordeal, but the obligatory mother-in-an-animated-movie death is just around the corner.
Thanks to her sacrifice, Treeshaker has the strength to go to the Underworld, where the princesses are being held hostage by dragons (it’s worth noting that none of the dragons in this movie are the traditional, fire breathing kind). Along the way, he runs into his brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer (also voiced by Cserhalmi), who join him on his quest.
Three is very much the pervading number in this movie. Besides all of the trios, everything happens in threes, and while it can be confusing at times (especially when it comes to how different characters are related since their names aren’t consistent), the repetition helps make the plot easier to follow. When in doubt, Charles Solomon’s essay, which comes as part of Arbelos’ Blu-Ray release, is extremely helpful for bolstering confidence. The Sky King (Gyula Szabó), for instance, takes after Zeus, in that he appears in different forms but while Jankovics hints at this visually, by giving each alter ego one eye and a powerful beard, Solomon is able to confirm this impression in his essay.
The other effect of all these threes is to bolster the notion that Treeshaker is better than his brothers (think of the power of three as utilized in The Three Little Pigs). Eleanor Cowen takes about this macho vein to Son of the White Mare in her booklet essay, as well as how this blows back on the female characters, and it can be hard not to fixate on the stereotypes, but Jankovics isn’t wrong, when he says in a new interview, “We all want to make mature animation, but as we get old, we realize, that the true audience for animation is the open-minded child, who hasn’t been spoiled by anything yet.” While that isn’t to say the archetypes in Son of the White Mare shouldn’t be questioned, the artistry in this film is second to none. One doesn’t cancel out the other.
Plus, what’s important to realize with Arbelos’ Blu-Ray release is you’re not just getting one movie. Arbelos’ website undersells this, but on top of the newly restored Son of the White Mare, Arbelos’ Blu-Ray also comes with, János Vitéz (Johnny Corncob, 1973), Jankovics’ first feature and the first animated feature to come out of Hungary. When Johnny, the shepherd, neglects his duties (which Jankovics represents with a sheep tornado that plays off the fact that sheep look like clouds) he’s forced to leave his girlfriend, Iluska (Anikó Nagy), behind with her evil stepmother (Erzsi Pártos). Never has a coat appeared more alive than Johnny’s and the silhouette for the stepmother, who you almost don’t realize has a cat familiar because they’ve morphed together into one person, is a wonderful surprise. Jankovics admits he was inspired by George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine in his interview and if you love a groovy, 70’s aesthetic, János Vitéz is the film for you. It even classifies as a musical, with all of the ballads sung by Gjon Delhusa, and while Cowen brings up the fact that the Turks, who Johnny fights when he enlists, look like the Blue Meanies, there is a racist tone to their depiction here.
Other bonus features include the previously mentioned interview with Jankovics. Jankovics died earlier this year in May and the fact that this interview exists (it was recorded in August 2020) is a true gift to cinephiles. It’s also an amazing interview! Besides Son of the White Mare, Jankovics is able to provide context for all of the films included on this set, including his short films. “Dreams on Wings” (1968) was a commercial Jankovics directed for Air India where he was advised to include “constant transformation” and, in most of his films, it’s very noticeable that scenes don’t cut away so much as the image transforms.
According to Jankovics, “Sisyphus” (1974) was about the making of János Vitéz (and while most promotional featurettes come off as fluff pieces, the one for János Vitéz gets into specifics about the process and the entire team involved). In the film, Sisyphus is pushing up his rock and the ink lines get smooth and taut as his muscles feel the strain. More than the animation, however, it’s the way Jankovics uses sound that stands out. Until he gets to the top of the hill, Sisyphus is huffing and puffing the whole time but, when he gets to the top, the rock isn’t shown rolling back down again. Instead, Sisyphus descends in silence until an exhale is heard during the credits, but is the sound relief or an indicator that everything’s about to start back up again?
“The Struggle” (1977) is about a nude sculptor who looks like he was sculpted by Rodin himself. When the statue he’s working on starts sculpting back, though, and chiseling at the artist, it becomes this beautiful film about what art takes out of a person (and in the interview, Jankovics explains why he chose to use a grease pencil).
Arbelos’ Blu-Ray is more than a collection of Jankovics’ early work. It’s an educational resource and one that’s been beautifully assembled for animation fans.