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Son of the White Mare
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by Jay Seaver

"A cult classic that deserves its spiffy restoration."
4 stars

"Son of the White Mare" is folklore, which means that it's wild and often nonsensical, even if there's also something underneath that seems to resonate. It's also animation, where you have absolute freedom to go anywhere your mythology-fueled imagination can take you so long as you're willing to do the disciplined, painstaking work necessary. It's a cult classic because the one half of that seldom seems to interfere with the other, making something memorably, impressively surreal.

It opens with a gravid white mare fleeing something that looks like a fire, although the setting is trippy and metaphorical enough that it could be something else before she seemingly races through a portal to another world (or holes up in the hollow of a tree). She gives birth, and the foal transforms into a boy. A forest spirit tells him to have his mother nurse him for seven years (and then seven years more), before leaving to go on a quest to the underworld. "Treeshaker" soon discovers he has two brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, and they soon find a hut, a gnome, and three castles with dragons and princesses.

The story doesn't particularly make sense - the mare fills Stonecrumbler in on how they wound up in that tree, but if this leads him to be seeking justice or revenge or liberation, that's not really where the brothers' quest takes them. Truth be told, Stonecutter drains his mother dry and barely looks back without it exactly being her sacrificing herself to avenge him, so the motivation is kind of wobbly throughout. On top of that, Treeshaker is kind of the most boring sort of mythological hero, too outrageously strong to ever face any sort of challenge, so confident and assured in most cases that his brothers' shortcomings highlight how he's got relatively little personality. Director Marcell Jankovics and co-writer László György commit to the rule of three to an almost absurd extent, making for a potentially very repetitive movie.

It never quite becomes that, though; the repeated elements may not vary that much, but they tend not to be drawn out; Jankovics, the editors, and the music department let it feel like ramping up and building momentum, letting Treeshaker's feats grow more superhuman but not having him pull a new trick out for every fight, and making him possibly feel out of control near the end, when he's spent the whole movie ramping up and may not be able to slow down for a misunderstanding. The simplicity of it heightens the feel of a world still forming, and the way this simple repetition will often give way to extended mind-bending visuals makes it more of a time of unsettled legend.

It's the sort of capable underpinning that enables one to brush a lot away by saying to just look at the pictures, because the film is visually amazing, probably looking as good as it has since its original 1981 release thanks to a back-to-the-negative 4K restoration. It is full of full-screen metamorphoses, geometric compositions in which a viewer can lose themselves at home (this must really be something on a big screen), and character animation that never particularly strives for realism but also avoids being childish or self-consciously envelope-pushing. It's not necessarily appropriate for children, though they'll probably only catch the seductive topless princess and dragon with the stone testes rather than the vaginal and phallic imagery throughout. The character design is especially clever, from how there's a lot of kinship between the brothers and sisters despite them being clearly identifiable, while the dragons are wonderfully anachronistic and symbolic of more pervasive violence and dehumanization. They're almost too creative to slay.

Of course, dig too deep into the symbolism and you get to benevolent god-kings ruling through some vague divine right, which isn't great, but it's the sort of movie whose abstraction is so extreme that viewers almost can't help but be hyper-aware of it even as the imagery is washing over them as just gorgeous. Here's hoping that when the sort of small theater that would show an animated movie from 1981 Hungary is re-opened, they'll have room for some late shows of this, because there's not much like it that's done nearly so well.

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originally posted: 10/07/20 07:02:33
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the Fantasia International Film Festival 2012 series, click here.

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Directed by
  Marcell Jankovics

Written by
  Marcell Jankovics
  László György

  György Cserhalmi
  Vera Pap

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