Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Book Of Masters (2009) Film Review
The Book Of Masters
Reviewed by: Paul Griffiths
The Book Of Masters is the first film to be produced in Russia by Disney’s CIS Division. Melding their storytelling heritage with the country’s rich folklore history must have seemed a no-brainer. This effort signals the culmination of Disney developing a substantial Russian production team over recent years, part of a wider push for leverage in footholds across global territories. Overall, East meets West with mutual respect, but this debut is still an uneven, mismatched effort.
The once-upon-a-time tale opens classically among the pages of an animated storybook. We find a young princess transformed by a magic stone into an evil Queen, forever imprisoned within a stone fortress. Her powers grow as she festers with resentment, plotting the demise of the outside world denied her. To unleash her vengeance she needs to sacrifice another young princess and find a master stonecutter to set to on that magic stone.
As it would happen, spunky lad Ivan’s a dab hand with the chisel and soon enough his lowly village existence is flipped into an epic journey to save the world. Along the way he meets an assortment of magical and comical characters and learns sword skills and loyal friendship, before he eventually finds true love and a happy ending for all.
It’s an original but by-the-numbers fairytale plot that sticks rigidly to its linear structure. A Vladimir Propp checklist must have been close at hand, ticking off more than enough archetypal characters and functions along the way. A number of proverbial Russian folklore characters get their cameos, such as Baba Iaga, Bogatyr, the rusalka, and Koschei the Deathless, mostly portrayed by well-known Russian actors.
The traditional folklore elements are played to the hilt, from the majolica sets to the flamboyant performances, colourful clothes and costume make-up. It’s large and loud and, knowing its narrative milieu well, pokes fun at the traditions it’s upholding. A magical ball of wool is more an annoying sat-nav than sprite guide and the familiar talking mirror is now a flickering iPad knock-off or teleconferencing tool.
So, technically all is accounted for, yet for a story steeped with magic there’s very little cinematic alchemy stirring it all together. The script is pedestrian, in spite of its parodying. The exacting episodic design lines up the different characters with equity, but makes the 100+ minutes running time feel uncomfortably distended. This means the film, at least partly aimed at younger audiences, seems a little insincere for then explicitly scolding modern youth for not giving traditional folklore enough attention.
Perhaps to compensate for this very problem The Book Of Masters periodically beams in high-end CGI extravaganzas. Although some of these sequences are impressively realised, they are at complete odds with the style and tone of everything else. Most are blatant Lord Of The Rings rip-offs and, as a result, look short of both imagination and proper consideration of how they should serve the story.
Moreover, it’s an artistic decision that perpetually imbalances the film and seems to underline the uneasy marriage of Disney’s creative forces with the Russian aesthetic. Sniffing imperialism in the contrast might be taking it a bit far. Rather, this is the first move as Disney cautiously flexes its presence in the Russian market. It’ll be interesting to see how their next film, already being developed, can improve upon that relationship more harmoniously.Reviewed on: 20 Oct 2010