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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Peter and the Wolf Op. 67 (1936)

Philharmonia Orchestra/Mark Stephenson
Suzie Templeton (director)
Special features: The Musical Themes; The Story - Picture Gallery; The Making of Peter & The Wolf; A Day on the Film Set; Director's Commentary
Language versions: English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian (Bonus Material)
Subtitle Languages
GB for the Bonus Material
Sound format: PCM Stereo, Dolby Digital 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region Code: 2.5
Breakthru Films 2006
ARTHAUS-MUSIK 101 804-GB [movie: 35:00; bonus: 75:00]

Much has changed since 1959. My beloved old childhood LP copy of Peter and the Wolf, also with the Philharmonia, but conducted by Efrem Kurtz, is narrated in the comfortingly British voice of Michael Flanders and is about as far away as one could imagine from the chill, forbidding Russia in which this modern-day Peter lives. The only thing which might remind one that this version is related to British film tradition is that Peter gets himself into a frightful pickle and achieves his coup more by luck than design. I was intrigued to find out what my four and a half year old nudist-for-all-seasons daughter would make of it, but she dived under a duvet at the blizzard storm of the outset, and only peeked sporadically from behind a new 'Pixelchix' game - how times have changed!

Intensely detailed, the soundtrack carries a great deal of subliminal detail. There is a constant sense of atmospheric space much as one finds in those total immersion computer games, and distant industrial noises follow Peter in the yard of his Grandfather's wretched shed of a home. We only really become aware of the contemporary setting however as Peter encounters but is ignored by some trendy youths and is violently bullied by another pair of lads (on National Service?) in the local town. This layering of times present (town) and times stuck in the past (the hovel of home) is brought full circle when the magical music of Prokofiev starts as Peter stumbles into the timelessness of the wood.

While there is comfort in the familiarity of Prokofiev's wonderful 1936 score, there is nothing at all comfortable about the imagery and characterisations in this film. The fat cat is a figure of fun with a madly wicked look in her eyes, but ultimately pompous and cowardly. Even my daughter found her funny, but then, she's used to the ways of cats. The bird is another significant character, with a highly, unexpectedly expressive face. Grandfather's frown is unfriendly and unwelcoming, his hands veined beyond credibility: life can be no fun in their household. The huntsmen are vindictive, stupid and a danger to others. There is of course no narration, the film scenarios take care of the storytelling aspect in the piece. This means that some of the fantasy element in the text is lost, but nobody really believes you can hear the silly duck singing inside the belly of the wolf after all that has happened: Prokofiev reminds us of the wolf's feast earlier in the film, but the wolf's eyes show no contrition. In the end, Peter triumphs in his own quiet rebellion of freedom. He makes a mockery of his earlier attackers (who turned out to be the huntsmen), and the charlatans who would profit from the capture of the wolf, including Grandfather.

The extras are comprehensive and excellent. There is a full thematic breakdown including clips which show the orchestral instruments in action, a 'making of', which shows the stop-frame animators at work, and the background to the characters and the incredible detail which goes into such a production. 'Behind the scenes' has interviews with Suzie Templeton and with some of the Polish team, specialist animators at the Se-Ma-For Studios who worked on the film. The obligatory Director's commentary in fact has some fascinating clips from a rough version of the film, revealing some of the computer generated work which tidies up the final result, and showing some out-takes which highlight the pitfalls of such complicated work. There is some wonderful educational footage of a project 'Let's make Peter and the Wolf' based around the music and the film, and also the story in text, accompanied by stills from the film. All in all, one gets a genuine 3D feel for what such a production can mean for so many people.

All of this extra material, including a richly illustrated booklet which also has chapter and verse on the making of the film and further detailed background information, might swamp what is after all quite a short film - if feature-length for an animation of this kind. This might be true if the film itself was not a masterpiece. The sheer atmosphere and 'look' of the film brings the pervasive smell of coal-fired industry to the nostrils, and that dry, hard, bone-grinding cold that makes wintry inland Russia feel like living inside a badly defrosted fan-cooled fridge. The sense of near-reality and subtle palette of colour and light teases the eye and the imagination, as do the characters, who live on in the memory and take on lives of their own beyond the confines of the filmed footage.

Mark Stephenson's reading of the score and the Philharmonia's playing is sprightly and characterful, all soloists on top form as one might expect. The synergy between music and image is glorious. There is only one thing which I found a little disturbing - I know it's petty and picky, but Peter's eyes do seem capable of independent movement at times: I'm sure that can't have been intentional.

This DVD is a wonderful production. It works on all levels: as a well-known story lovingly and adventurously retold, as entertainment, education and inspiration for young and old alike. I must admit to being a fool for stop-frame animation, and revel in Bristolian pride whenever Wallace and Gromit pop onto the screen. This film brings such work into different directions and new levels, extending the boundaries of artistic excellence of which the technique is capable, and surely deserving of any and all awards which must surely come its way.

Dominy Clements


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