10 ICONIC animated movies by USSR’s ‘Soyuzmultfilm’ studio

Boris Stepantsev/Soyuzmultfilm, 1968
In Russia, both children and adults know these animated works almost by heart.

The ‘Soyuzdetmultfilm’ (the Children’s Cartoon Union) studio, which later became ‘Soyuzmultfilm’ (the Cartoon Union), was opened in 1936. It’s believed, this was the decision of Joseph Stalin himself. The studio’s first building in Moscow was fitted into a rebuilt church (Read more about the history of the studio here). 

At first, Soviet animators involuntarily imitated the legendary Disney approach. But, they soon developed their own artistic language and many technical innovations and created animated films that were recognized by the international community and, most importantly, which both adults and children still enjoy to this day.

1. ‘Moydodyr’ (1939)

A washstand comes to life and starts scolding a boy for being a filthy pig. He threatens to call his “soldiers” – sponges and soap – to give the “dirty, unwashed piglet” a good scrubbing.

Early Soviet cartoons were designed to educate the new Soviet generation and instill in them the right values, teach them to be friends with other children and obey parents, but also trivial things, such as personal hygiene, which was necessary to stay healthy.

‘Moidodyr’ (literally, “Wash Until There’s Holes”, “Wash ‘Em Spotless”) is based on a poem by Korney Chukovsky. Ivan Ivanov-Vano’s screen adaptation became a real menace to children.

2. ‘The Humpbacked Horse’ (1947)

A magic horse was often mentioned in Russian fairy tales, most often helping Ivan the Fool, the youngest and most unlucky of three brothers. The author’s version of the folk tale written by Peter Yershov became the literary basis of the movie. Ivan the Fool meets the magical Humpbacked Horse, which can fly. It helps Ivan in all his adventures and even saves his life.

Even Walt Disney himself admitted he liked the cartoon directed by Ivan Ivanov-Vano and even showed it to his team of artists. In 1950, the animated film received a special jury prize at the Cannes festival. In 1975, the director released an updated version of the cartoon, including scenes not included in the 1947 cut.

3. ‘The Scarlet Flower’ (1952)

Before leaving on a long voyage, a merchant asks his daughters what to bring back. And while the older ones list expensive gifts, the youngest named Nastenka asks only for a scarlet flower. During a storm, the merchant’s ship winds up on a faraway island, where a terrible monster lives in a palace…

Director Lev Atamanov used Sergei Aksakov’s, ‘The Scarlet Flower’ (1858) as a literary basis, which is loosely based on the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ folk plot. This feature-length cartoon was supposed to introduce the young viewer not only to the folk story, but also to bring ancient Russia to life for him, showing fairs, white-stone kremlins and Russian traditional dress.

4. ‘The Snow Queen’ (1957)

Today, children around the world are fans of Disney’s Oscar-winning ‘Frozen’ (2013). However, the Soviet Union already had an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale back in the 1950s, directed by Lev Atamanov.

A boy named Kai and a girl named Gerda live next door to each other and are friends. Her grandmother tells them a story about an evil Snow Queen, but the mocking Kai says that if he meets her, he will put her on the stove and melt her. The Snow Queen decides to teach him a lesson and breaks the magic mirror, whose shards hit Kai in the eye and in the heart and he becomes cold and evil. Soon, the Snow Queen takes Kai away on a sleigh to her northern palace, so a brave Gerda sets out to rescue him, overcoming incredible obstacles along the way.

5. ‘Vovka in a Far Far Away Kingdom’ (1965)

A Soviet boy named Vovka finds himself in the mythical Far Far Away Kingdom (in Russian ‘Tridevyatoe Tsarstvo’). This is a magical world where he meets characters from a variety of Russian folk tales and their plots are intertwined. He can’t do anything himself, so he asks for help from the magical goldfish that makes wishes come true or the tablecloth that sets the table by itself. The wise Vasilisa the Wise explains to Vovka the exercises from a Soviet math textbook.

Boris Stepantsev’s comedy cartoon was supposed to show children how important it is to study and be independent. And, of course, it, once again, acquainted kids with Russian folk tales.

6. ‘Junior and Karlson’ (1968)

A Swedish boy nicknamed Little Brother (Malysh, or Junior) meets an unusual short man with a propeller who does a lot of pranks. They become friends, but Malysh gets in trouble for all of Karlson’s mischief. However,  the new friend doesn’t leave the boy in trouble, despite the fact that his parents don’t believe in Karlson’s existence.

The story ‘Karlsson-on-the-Roof’ was originally written by Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren. And the incredible popularity of the cartoon contributed to the fact that, for a period, she was considered the favorite author of all Soviet children. Director Boris Stepantsev gave the world an utterly charming Karlsson, who flies on a motor and eats jam together with his friend Malysh.

By the way, Karlsson was voiced by actor Vasily Livanov, best known for his role as Sherlock Holmes in the 1980s, for which he was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Crocodile Gena and many other iconic Soviet cartoon characters were also voiced by him.

7. ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ (1969)

Everyone knows the story of Winnie-the-Pooh, the kind-hearted teddy bear from Alan Milne’s famous tale. In Russian, the story appeared in a free retelling by Boris Zakhoder. And a Soviet cartoon was made based on it, becoming incredibly popular, and was arguably in no way inferior to Disney’s version.

In Fyodor Khitruk’s cartoon, there is no Tigger, no Kanga and not even Christopher Robin; but there is his own unique Winnie-the-Pooh, given a legendary voiceover by actor Yevgeny Leonov. Three series were made about the adventures of Winnie and his touching friendship with Piglet: ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ (1969), ‘Winnie-the-Pooh Pays a Visit’ (1971) and ‘Winnie-the-Pooh and a Busy Day’ (1972). Like many Soviet cartoons, they have become quotable movies and every child knows the songs in them.

8. Films about ‘Cheburashka’ (1960-1980s)

Gena the Crocodile works at the zoo as… a crocodile. But, in the evening, he goes back home and spends lonely evenings. So he decides to find friends. One day, Gena finds an unknown creature with big ears in a box full of oranges – a Cheburashka! They become friends and together stand up to the hooliganism of a mean old woman named Shapoklyak.

Eduard Uspensky’s book ‘Crocodile Gene and His Friends’ (1966) was animated by Roman Kachanov, who ended up making four films in total: ‘Gena the Crocodile’ (1969), ‘Cheburashka’ (1972), ‘Shapoklyak’ (1974) and ‘Cheburashka Goes to School’ (1983).

The characters became incredibly popular and found many reflections in popular culture. It is no coincidence that the film ‘Cheburashka’ (2022), which used the image of the beloved character, became the highest-grossing movie in the history of the Russian box office, grossing over 7 trillion rubles (approx. $850 million). Audiences in Japan were also very fond of the big-eared beast, where they’ve even made their own Japanese remakes: a feature-length movie and a TV show.

9. ‘Hedgehog in the Fog’ (1975)

It seems to be a simple fairy tale about a hedgehog who goes to visit a bear cub friend, but gets lost in the fog and finds himself in a magical world. Yuri Norstein turned Sergei Kozlov’s story into an animated film, which has since been recognized as the best in the world, winning awards at many film festivals.

The characters speak very little and their dialogues are rather primitive, most likely for the youngest children, but the philosophical subtext is so powerful that it is considered to be a cartoon for adults.

In order to achieve artistic conviction, Norstein used his own scheme – filming on tiered glasses. With its help, it was possible to achieve both the necessary fog and the 3D effect.

10. ‘Three from Prostokvashino’ (1978)

Uncle Fyodor is a small, but independent and intelligent boy (that’s why he is nicknamed ‘Uncle’). One day, he meets a homeless cat named Matroskin and brings him home, but his parents are against this new member of the family. So, Uncle Fyodor and Matroskin the cat, leaving them a farewell note, go off together to the village of Prostokvashino. There, they meet Sharik the dog and settle together in a vacant house, where they begin to run the household together.

The cartoon based on Eduard Uspensky’s book ‘Uncle Fedya, His Dog and His Cat’ (1974) became very popular and still is being quoted in everyday life by many. The Russian voiceover of the cat Matroskin, performed by Oleg Tabakov, became a separate subject of spectators’ love and imitation.

The work of director Vladimir Popov became so popular that two more sequels, ‘Vacation in Prostokvashino’ (1980) and ‘Winter in Prostokvashino’ (1984), were produced. In the 2010s, there were plans to launch an entire series about Uncle Fyodor, but, due to a legal conflict, only one episode, simply titled ‘Prostokvashino’ (2018), was released.

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