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Categories: Movie Reviews

“Fehérlófia” – or “Son of the White Mare” – is a 1981 Hungarian animated film directed by Marcell Jankovics. Here’s why the psychedelic folk tale is a must-see for anyone interested in the art of animation.

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While flicking through lists of classic films on my favorite movie database, Letterboxd, a few months ago, I came across a quirky animated film from Hungary that users were heaping praise on for its daring visual style and bonkers yet classical narrative. This 1981 film, called Fehérlófia or, in English, Son of the White Mare, was promptly added to my 2000-strong watchlist, likely to be lost in the vast ooze from which I pick the odd film every now and again when I’m in a particular mood. Luckily, I returned to Fehérlófia recently to test my cartoon comfort zone in preparation for our animation issue, and I couldn’t have picked a more wondrous film to dive into.

Fehérlófia has a story, but a large portion of its impact is wholly aesthetic. What you’ll notice pretty much instantly is that the film works with a color palette that isn’t at all concerned with reality, juxtaposing astonishing mixtures of bright yellows, reds and blues that make deep contrast and create defined, smooth shapes. The characters of the film are given very little textural definition, but this serves to deepen the mythical feel of the film rather than hinder it, and in general creates an impression of simplicity and archetype which grants the fairy tale narrative a sense of universality and grandiose outlandishness.

Another visual wonder of Fehérlófia that strikes you right away is its whirlwind pacing, with almost every single frame flowing flawlessly into another image with next to no defined cuts in the action. Even when the times or locations of events are changing, the images evaporate and mix directly into other images, with new buildings, structures and characters literally forming right in front of our eyes out of the shapes and colors of the other objects currently on the screen. All of these flowing colors and lights create a sense of energy an magic that you’ll be hard-pressed to find in any other animated film, and make Fehérlófia a totally unique, imagination-expanding experience.

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As for the narrative, Fehérlófia will in many ways feel familiar to those raised on “rule of three” fairy tales, which makes sense as it was based on ancient Hunnic and Avaric legends as well as the work of László Arany. It centers around the strongest of three super-human brothers, Fehérlófia (Treetearer), the son of a white mare who is challenged with descending into the underworld to defeat three dragons and save three princesses said dragons have locked up. Initially Fehérlófia teams up with his two brothers, Kőmorzsoló (Stonecrumbler) and Vasgyúró (Ironkneader), with each intending to defeat one dragon and rescue one princess, but ultimately he is the only one brave enough to enter the underworld and is tasked with defeating each dragon single-handedly. 

The dragons themselves are memorable creations, though I wonder if their actual name was lost in translation as the classification of “dragon” is a very loose one. None of the three dragons has wings or scales or can breathe fire, and they are all more similar to stone golems than any flying reptile. Still, it’s fun to see 3, 7 and 12-headed stone and metal constructs (the second dragon has cannons, and the third looks like something out of Space Invaders) challenge a shiny yellow guy with an even shinier yellow sword to a battle to the death.

Fehérlófia is also crammed full of euphemism and symbolism, many of them relating to birth and genitalia. When two mountains part to reveal a new passage, they’re shaped like two legs spreading apart, with water flowing through the middle. Much attention is also given to the sacred bond of breastfeeding, with the White Mare (who sort of serves as the narrator of the story when she explains the legend of the three dragons to Fehérlófia as a young boy) providing her son continuous nutrition as he grows the strength to pull up a tree, underneath which is the door to the underworld.

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Fehérlófia is accompanied by a refined orchestral score which is slow and operatic, reminiscent of the kind of score you’d find in a majestic sci-fi film like 2001 or Interstellar. Most notable about the sound design, however, are the voiceovers, which are a strange blend of epically theatrical and soothingly soft. The sound itself seems somewhat low-budget, with lots of crackles and grit, but this does more to ground the film and give it an extra layer of humanity and timelessness than break its suspension of disbelief.

Fehérlófia will be an eye-opener to some, and an acid trip for the rest. Though it’s formed around a very structured and predictable folk tale, said form is very fluid, and what you’re left with is possibly the most intense and unique aesthetic experience you’ll ever have. It’s certainly the most visually unique animated film I’ve seen in a long time, and one that I could certainly see providing inspiration to many a dry well based on its creative imagery alone. Its beauty and power was put best by my fellow Letterboxd user sprizzle, who said “I would have liked to grow up watching this film. This is pure imagination fuel.”

Give Fehérlófia a watch if you’re at all interested in the art of animation. It’s an explosion of color and sound that comes from one of animation’s most imaginative minds, Marcell Jankovics. For more of his work, check out his Oscar-nominated short Sisyphus, which is considered a bit of a classic and was turned into a Super Bowl commercial in 2008.

Cameron Johnson

Cameron Johnson is a writer and filmmaker born in England, based in Michigan, USA, and currently living in Enniscrone, Ireland. He writes about all things entertainment with a speciality in film criticism. He has been working on films ever since middle school, when his shorts "Moving Stateside" and "The Random News" competed in the West Branch Children's Film Festival. Since then he's written and directed a number of his own films and worked in many different crew jobs. Follow him on Twitter @GambasUK and look at his daily film diary at letterboxd.com/gambasUK.

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