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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Peter and the Wolf
Philharmonia Orchestra/Mark Stephenson
Bonus/Extras: The Musical Instruments; The Making of; Behind the Scenes; Director’s Commentary; Let’s make “Peter & the Wolf”; Picture Gallery;
Production Date: 2006
Production Location: Poland (Se-ma-for Studios and BreakThru Films)
Director: Suzie Templeton
Blu-ray: 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio; Picture Format 16:9, 1080/24p Full HD; Region: Worldwide
Languages: English, German, French (plus French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch on Blu-ray)
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 102200/Blu-ray 108113 [110:00]

This remarkable piece of work really dusts down Peter and the Wolf and presents it in a unique and very special way. The interpretation of the story by British director Suzie Templeton comes as something of a shock to begin with but you quickly get used to the stunning world that she has created. This is no pleasant romp in a sunny meadow. What she has presented us with is a severe, chilling and rather dilapidated environment with a frozen duck-pond, austere looking tree and a grey run-down house. Think of Tim Burton and you aren’t a million miles away. The image I had of Peter and his animal friends in my own mind’s eye has been shifted forever. I first heard this piece as a young boy in a version narrated by Michael Flanders with his warm style of delivery. There’s very little old-fashioned warmth to be found here but there is something deeper. It’s the characters that bring the story to life, not the narrator. Indeed there is no narration, just the film and Prokofiev’s music.

The film was made with the stop-frame model animation technique used by the creators of Wallace and Gromit. The results are simply stunning. Indeed, just like our friends Wallace and Gromit, Peter and the Wolf will have an appeal to all ages. Every time you watch it something new catches the eye and the attention to detail throughout the 30 minutes duration is phenomenal.

Now to the characters. Peter himself is a lonely-looking individual, generally unsmiling and rather edgy. He’s a sad child - he only occasionally smiles - and his grandfather is a classic grumpy old man. No wonder the two of them look fed-up living in this cold place. The duck is more goose-like in appearance but cuddly and funny all the same. The bird has a damaged wing and flies around with the aid of a balloon. This is very off the wall but near the end we see the bird fully recovered and flying unaided - this even raises a smile from Peter. The cat, “played by the sleek, black clarinet” in the Flanders version, is a huge round ginger creature more akin to Bagpuss but far less loveable. He or she is a nasty piece of work. The wolf is a dirty, skinny evil-looking animal. Just perfect.

There are some parts of the story that make you sit up and think. The expressions on the faces of the puppets are quite uncanny. Peter and the wolf often look at each other and you can see the cogs turning around in both of their brains. Not a word is spoken but you know exactly what is taking place. They start off as enemies but gradually become respectful of each other. Just for a few seconds at the conclusion of the film they become friends and Peter takes pity on the creature and sets him free. By the way, the duck - although eaten whole - doesn’t magically escape from the wolf’s stomach so there’s no happy ending here. That’s a bit of a blow.

This is all very thought-provoking but there is plenty of humour along the way. It’s still a tale for children. Although the setting is cold and forbidding it’s the warmth of the characters that makes it so enjoyable. The story still retains a level of innocence and the balance between new and old is really well managed. The DVD includes 1 hour and 20 minutes of extras. I found these to be just as riveting as the film itself. There are some in-depth interviews and the secrets behind the animation technique are revealed as never before. It took five years of hard work, imagination, meticulous set and puppet building and total dedication to pull this off. This is a treat for young and old alike.
John Whitmore

A review of the Blu-ray version ...

The Soviet Union of the 1930s to which Sergei Prokofiev returned, or rather eased himself into over a period of years, was not the safest place for a composer. The environment grew more and more hostile until in 1936 Zhdanov, Leningrad party boss, published the infamous article Chaos instead of music. This intemperate tract, strongly influenced and maybe partly written by Stalin, was ostensibly an attack on Shostakovich but Prokofiev, however egotistical, was no fool, and he took the safest course. He wrote a series of pieces for that most unpolitical audience, children. The most famous of these was Peter and the Wolf, commissioned by Natalia Sats for the Moscow Musical Theatre for Children. Prokofiev was quite explicit: 'the text was read during the pauses in the music which was disproportionately longer than the text - for me the story was important only as a means of inducing children to listen to the music.'

That is the one aspect of this work that Suzie Templeton's deservedly lauded animation, fails to address. The music is very much not the issue despite the presence of the Philharmonia Orchestra no less. If you only seek Prokofiev's masterly score, look elsewhere. If you want to be entranced by a superb animated story and the equally intriguing documentaries about the film's creation, then buy this at once and pretend to give it to your children or grandchildren so that you can borrow it back. My three oldest grandchildren, 11, 8 and 4, enjoyed it: the 4 year-old instantly demanded it be repeated. The 8 year-old said it was better than expected. The 11 year-old reported its use in her class as a morality tale about looking after wildlife. None of them even noticed the music. So much for Prokofiev's efforts.

This Blu-ray contains six items. First and foremost the film. This is a stop-motion & CGI animation by a Polish Studio Se-ma-for. It stars the normal characters, Peter, Grandad, the duck, the bird, the cat and the wolf. The characterisation is very individual. They are all seen against a Russo-Polish cultural background which I found fascinating. Though using Wallace & Gromit type techniques these characters could not be more different. The context and outcome of the story is changed from the Prokofiev original but in a wholly coherent way. The famous music is clear but never brought to the aural foreground in the way the composer would have expected. There are also copious sound effects.

Then follow the extras: a narrated story with stills; a very short chapter on the instruments used for the characters (not HD), the only nod in the direction of Prokofiev's intentions; a UK-primary-school-based documentary about the use of the tale for musical and dramatic education (not HD); and two totally fascinating films about the making of the animation, one including interviews with key creative figures including Templeton (not HD). The 'Behind the Scenes' film (not HD) managed to include appallingly bad background muzak obviously added by the tea-boy. It could not have been done by anyone with artistic sensibilities. I have noted the items not filmed in HD but (the muzak apart) they are all well made and largely, but not entirely, free of pointless filmic effects. The extras are most probably of interest to animation students and to classroom teachers.

I may be picky about parts of this Arthaus issue but I am hugely impressed by Suzie Templeton's film. It deserved all its success and it is a strong reason to buy this Blu-ray. The HD video is outstanding and the sound is very atmospheric.

Dave Billinge