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An animated image of a hero kneeling at a woman’s feet, from Son of the White Mare

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A psychedelic animated masterpiece’s 40-year journey to an American release

Marcell Jankovics discusses his celebrated classic, Son of the White Mare

Image: Arbelos Films

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Stepping into Son of the White Mare (Fehérlófia), Marcell Jankovics’ Hungarian animation masterwork, feels like walking through a fantastical dimension where colors and shapes flow freely to bring a legend to life. It’s a spellbinding experience that puts viewers in an altered state of mind. It’s been a highly regarded work among critics and scholars since its 1981 premiere, but it’s been unavailable in the United States until this year, when Arbelos Films’ 4K restoration brought it to arthouse theaters and streaming rental.

Adapted from a folktale popular among Eastern Europe’s nomadic peoples, White Mare is a mesmerizing feat of psychedelic artistry, epic in ideological and practical scope. Jankovics’ 81-minute saga begins as a white mare goddess gives birth to three sons who are destined to save the universe from the three multi-headed dragons ruling the Underworld. Youngest brother Treeshaker, whose facial features and glow mimic the sun, leads the quest, which demands courage, camaraderie, and a righteous resolve to restore cosmic order — and possibly find romance.

Since the story takes all its major cues from ancient wisdom, Son of the White Mare follows an archetypal hero’s-journey narrative. Treeshaker is essentially a knight in shining armor, rescuing princesses and defeating evil. But even for viewers who know exactly where it’s going, the vibrant, shape-shifting imagery is dazzling. To fit his artistic ambitions and interpretation of the core messages, Jankovics blended many variations on the same fable.

“I know of 55 different versions of this fairytale, of which I used about five or six,” the artist told Polygon via email from Budapest. He breaks down the versions of the story into two main groups, based on their number of protagonists.

Over the centuries, many more details have survived from the version of the story with four heroes. But Jankovics opted to focus on the versions with three main figures as his baseline. He believed audiences wouldn’t tolerate watching the same actions repeat four times. Three celestial warriors, three evil beasts, and three battles were enough, he says, to drive the ideas home.

Mythology is the driving engine of all of Jankovics’ features to date (The Tragedy of Man, Song of the Miraculous Hind, and Hungary’s first-ever animated feature, Johnny Corncob), as well as his Oscar-nominated short “Sisyphus” and his television projects. In these tried, tested, and timeless tales of extraordinary creatures and the struggle between mortals and the divine, he has found the purest form of storytelling.

“They are eternally valid,” Jankovics says. “They do not pick at the surface, but instead, they touch the soul, they penetrate the human subconscious and connect us to the cosmos.”

An image of the three brothers walking along a curved surface, each with a shadow of light in a different color, from Son of the White Mare Image: Arbelos Films

For this reason, he originally envisioned the film as a story for young viewers, specifically pre-school children, who tend to be more receptive to fairy tales. Jankovics believes these developing minds need to be acquainted with the most essential things in life, so the lessons on bravery, forgiveness, and fraternity in Son of the White Mare were aimed at them.

Upon its initial European release in 1981, the film found some success with its target demographic, but as drug use became more widespread, teenagers and young adults began to celebrate the movie as a psychedelic work of art. Although the director understands the correlation between his creation and how it’s perceived by viewers in an altered state of mind, he thinks of it as a curious byproduct that doesn’t derive from his actual intent. “The effects of dreaming and substance use are similar. Still, I maintain that the film is about the dream world of fairy tales,” he says.

Son of the White Mare forced Jankovics and his team to tackle the technological difficulties of achieving sharp geometrical designs, astonishing moving landscapes, and equally fluid characters, in a world where animation was still being done on cels by hand. One key issue for him was the connection between the visual layers in animation.

“I was always bothered by the stylistic differences between the backgrounds and the figures in traditional animation, the main reason for which is that the figures painted on the cel are framed by contours, and in the backgrounds, if there is contour at all, it is absorbed into the paper as though it didn’t exist,” he says. He feels the situation is similar with the colors — backgrounds were typically painted on paper, which dulls the colors, because the material absorbs the paint, as opposed to how the paint stands out on the plastic cels used for characters and elements in motion.

In order to harmonize these elements in Son of the White Mare, he used an unusual inking and painting method: artists had to color each frame carefully using a paint sprayer, with the caveat that if the equipment accidentally spat on the cel, it had to be thrown out. Hands-on to a fault, Jankovics himself was in charge of the film’s illustrated storyboard, its entire layout, the background sketches, and the figure designs. He also animated around 43,000 frames on his own.

Jankovics considers content and form to be intrinsically related, so he used primordial symbolism to define how the characters were designed. The face of his protagonist, Treeshaker, has a circular shape that represents perfection and wholeness (the sun). He shines the brightest, to show off his valiant personality and his natural skills as a leader. Irontemperer, his stern and confident brother, sports triangular designs signifying the stability and harmony of a three-way alliance. Meanwhile, the drop form that characterizes Stonecrumbler, the least serious of the three siblings, illustrates an eternal cycle, and the yin-yang.

A stylized white horse in Son of the White Mare Image: Arbelos Films

Conversely, the angular outlines in the antagonists denote aggression. The monsters Treeshaker eventually fights aren’t dragons in a traditional sense — they’re creatures that evoke modern weaponry, such as machine guns and military tanks.

The color palette is similarly symbolic. Each segment of the day has its own hue: the night is dark blue, dawn is turquoise, morning is green, noon is yellow, afternoon is orange, sunset is red, and from there, purple gives way back to the night. Even the circular or tracking movements of the camera are used to reinforce Jankovics’ metaphorical use of shapes.

Son of the White Mare was produced at Pannónia Filmstúdió, Hungary’s largest animation studio, where Jankovics had a long-standing involvement. As a state-run venture, rather than a private business with more profit-driven financial interests, the studio gave him free rein over his work, and that freedom shows in White Mare. It’s visibly the result of a risk-taking visionary being given the liberty and resources to materialize something lavish and time-consuming to his satisfaction. That’s a luxury few animators have.

Jankovics started working at Pannónia in 1960, when he was still a teenager, and quickly climbed the ranks from assistant to animator. By the time he directed his first feature in 1973, he was a veteran who had developed his own stylistic sensitivities organically, in an environment that fostered his approach to animated storytelling. Pannónia’s mandate was to create pastoral, historical, and folk stories about Hungary. Jankovics fit right in.

Back in the 1990s, Jankovics got a small taste of a different work philosophy, when director Roger Allers (The Lion King) invited him to come consult on Kingdom of the Sun, which later — after a turbulent transition — became The Emperor’s New Groove. Jankovics was already well known for his intricate designs based on ancient folklore, so he was hired to translate a Quechua-Inca creation myth into an illustrated screenplay that served as the film’s prologue, back when the film had a solemn tone.

Though the work was ultimately futile and dissimilar to how he had operated for decades at that point, he remembers the experience fondly. “As The Emperor’s New Groove, it became a totally different film, and nothing came of my designs, although they paid handsomely,” the director says. “Roger spoke well of me in the profession, I’m featured in the credits as part of the pre-production staff, and I had the chance to spend two weeks at Walt Disney Studios, where I met some great people.”

At 78, Jankovics prefers the immediacy and connection of filmmaking with tangible materials, yet he sees the value in digital animation as it’s used in current productions, especially compositing. “It is no longer slavish execution, but it presents an opportunity for creative contribution,” he says. He appreciates how computer animation eliminates the illusion-destroying mistakes inherent to the traditional approach: the image is clear, with no scratches, dust, fingerprints, glare on the cells, or shadows caused by layering.

Still, Jankovics warns that these advances should enhance a project’s stylistic voice, not define it. Techniques aren’t meant to inform an artist’s creative freedom, but some creators voluntarily surrender their singular visions to ephemeral fashion. Thinking of today’s digitized industry, he’s also concerned that no tangible original trace of the artistic work is left behind for posterity when everything only exists online. And though he’s learned to accept the idea of using digital assistance for his next film project, Jankovics remains a purist at heart.

“I personally didn’t learn to draw on the screen for the simple reason that then I would have had to deal with all the corrections manually. I’m too old for that. Because of this, what I can acknowledge to be mine from my current project, Toldi, is on paper, “ he says. “I tell my crew (only half jokingly) that if a big hacker deletes everything that is in the cloud today, only my own sketches from my film will remain. That’s pretty depressing, isn’t it?”

Three shadowy, stylized figures with three tiny cities on their heads in Son of the White Mare Image: Arbelos Films

In regards to the 40-year delay between Son of the White Mare’s completion and its proper American release, Jankovics says he doesn’t know why it didn’t reach the States sooner. But he wasn’t too disappointed, because even without a commercial run in America, the film was selected among the 50 Best Animated Films of All Time at the 1984 Olympiad of Animation in Los Angeles. It’s also consistently appeared in critics’ polls focused on the best animated features in the world.

As mythical as the tale it depicts, Son of the White Mare has fascinated scholars and fellow artists since it first emerged, then became inaccessible. Now, in 2020, in a pristine format, it gets to ride again with a stronger gallop, reaching farther than ever before. Jankovics says the animation industry has finally caught up with this stunning film: “Some say that it was ahead of its time, and its time has now come.”

Son of the White Mare is available to rent on Vimeo.