In a parallel world, moviegoers, blissfully unaware of the COVIDs and the Faucis and the curves — flattened or otherwise — are settling down in front of the silver screen at their favorite theater for a rare Hungarian treat.
Their throats and noses gloriously exposed, these parallel-people are being dazzled by a tale of mythic proportions: haloed heroes travel across realms to save fairy royalty from the clutches of dragons with a strange fixation on securing mates of a decidedly non-draconic nature (isn’t there any love amongst the dragons?). But these inter-species affairs shouldn’t come as a surprise — this is the 1981 animated odyssey “Son of the White Mare,” from the Hungarian filmmaker Marcell Jankovics (“Johnny Corncob”), and the title is not exactly figurative.
The rest of us have to settle for being dazzled on our laptops. “Mare” premiered almost 40 years ago, but August marked its first-ever premiere in the United States. Originally intended for theaters, the switch was made to local theaters’ virtual platforms (hosted through Vimeo) once the pandemic hit. “Mare” is something of a classic among animation aficionados, the psychedelia it provides showcasing the unique and limitless possibilities of the animated medium. Its U.S. premiere, Vimeo or not, is long overdue.
Based on a 19th century Hungarian epic poem and the folktales of the nomadic Avar, Scythian and Hunnic peoples, “Mare” presents a simple story with simple fairy-tale logic. Once upon a time there was a horse who gave birth to three superhuman boys named Treeshaker, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer, so named because they can shake trees, crumble stones and temper iron with their bare hands, et cetera, et cetera. At one point an adolescent Treeshaker says to his equine mom, “An old man told me to ask you to nurse me for seven more years and then I will be strong!” and she just goes with it. And in classic mythological fashion, every narrative obstacle occurs three times (the third time usually being the charm).
But these unsophisticated story beats are easy to forgive — myths are usually fluid, often simple and almost always silly at their core (even when plumbing grimdark depths). “Mare” is a story of mythic logic but psilocybin proportions. From beginning to end, color, sound and shape crash in a phantasmagoric display, sampling the very best of French classic “Fantastic Planet,” the Beatles-driven “Yellow Submarine” and that weird alcohol-induced trip in “Dumbo.” The art style is simple — largely solid colors and flat shapes — but in motion the setting and characters twist and shimmer and transmogrify. In one particularly remarkable segment, colors pulsate as a horse’s womb enlarges into a great cosmic tree only to morph back into that same horse’s vulva as a little baby boy pops out and shifts into a panorama of the night sky whose stars transform into the sweat and tears of the proud mare as she licks her newborn colt.
The miracle of childbirth!
Jankovics matches the psychedelic display with expert choices in art direction that marry myth to modernity — the sinister dragons that Treeshaker and his brothers must vanquish are not the scaly reptiles of yore but are fashioned after machines of war and cyclopean cities. These flourishes make the age-old story fresh and interesting, but unfortunately these modern touches don’t extend too deep, as “Mare” peddles in the geriatric gender politics required of almost any mythos story, with damsels simultaneously being in distress and screwing over the whole world in Eve-fashion. Treeshaker fashioning a sword from another man’s beard and swooshing it around between his legs isn’t too subtle either, but can one really expect an adaptation of myth to not feature heavy phallic imagery?
Animation is often at its best when it accomplishes something live action cannot. “Mare” is a firm example of such a film, a visual journey that should satisfy mythology nuts, cartoon geeks and anyone looking for a brief sojourn in a parallel world.