'Hoffmaniada': The Stop-Motion Masterpiece You Can't Watch

Plus: the week's top streaming highlights and headlines.

There’s an insatiable demand for new content in the age of streaming. As platforms rush to meet that demand, even niche projects like I Lost My Body are landing major distributors. We’re seeing English releases for global animation that, back in the 2000s, most localizers wouldn’t have dared to touch.

Some of the world’s most intriguing animated films still fall through the cracks, though. That’s where you’ll find Hoffmaniada — maybe the most ambitious stop-motion film ever made in Russia.

Hoffmaniada is a special project. It comes from Soyuzmultfilm, the studio known for Soviet-era gems like Hedgehog in the Fog. And it’s directed by Stanislav Sokolov, a giant in the field of Soviet puppet animation. You might recognize his eye-popping film The Big Underground Ball.

With Hoffmaniada, Sokolov and Soyuzmultfilm channel the creativity and skill that defined them during the Cold War.

This is a strange and whimsical story about E. T. A. Hoffmann, the German author of The Sandman, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and other fairy tales. It blurs the line between biography and fantasy — Hoffmann is haunted by the fictional worlds he creates. Sokolov and his team weave Hoffmann’s writings together into a surreal dreamscape, where anything might happen.

The puppets and animation in Hoffmaniada are breathtaking. Sokolov’s films have long tended toward expressive, even grotesque styles of puppet design, but the look might reach its pinnacle here. Reportedly more than 150 puppets were built, dressed and painted for the film. Some get only seconds of screen time.

Sokolov’s quest to adapt Hoffmann stretches back more than 30 years — communism and capitalism both undermined him. It’s almost a miracle that Hoffmaniada exists.

Under Soviet rule, the film approval board rejected Hoffmann’s stories as “too scary for children and too mystical for adults,” according to Sokolov. But he struggled to find funding in the capitalist world of the Russian Federation. It’s a crisis that many ex-Soviet animators faced, as Priit Pärn described in 2001:

In the Soviet time everything which was not permitted was forbidden. So there were an endless number of restrictions that were political, but just insane. Now all the limits are connected with money. The final result is very often the same as before, sometimes worse.

Soyuzmultfilm began Hoffmaniada in 2001, but only finished the film in 2018. The lack of funding halted production an alarming number of times. Per the art director, Mihail Chemiakin, the team spent long stretches practically as volunteers. They worked “virtually for nothing” — and at one point went without pay for six months.

Although Hoffmaniada is finally out in the world, it’s still running into problems. Global distribution has been scarce, especially in English.

Soyuzmultfilm has showcased Hoffmaniada at English-language film festivals. In fact, they shopped it to distributors as recently as last year’s American Film Market. (Alex Dudok de Wit of Cartoon Brew named it one of the seven most interesting projects there.) If it’s nabbed an English distributor since then, we haven’t gotten word of it.

Until more information trickles out, we can only hope that Hoffmaniada will make it overseas.

You do have a few options before then, though. The film is available for free on the Russian streaming service ivi, whether or not you live in Russia. The beautiful puppets and animation shine through even if you don’t understand the language. You can also find a trailer with English subtitles just below.

What’s streaming

If you’re after an international film that’s already in English, we’ve got you covered. This week’s streaming picks are three films from around the world, each of which puts a wildly different spin on a classic idea — the animal protagonist. Click their names below to watch. (Availability varies for readers outside the United States and Canada.)

Marona’s Fantastic Tale (2019) — Starz

Our most popular tweet this week was about Marona. Directed by Anca Damian of Romania, it’s the touching and sometimes heartbreaking story of a dog’s memories. Its visual design is imaginative — and the animators pull tricks you’ve never seen before. Marona is a Starz exclusive, but you can also catch it on Hulu and Prime Video with a Starz upgrade. (Or you could try Hoopla.)

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985) — RetroCrush (Free)

An anime classic with a reputation as buried treasure. Based on a Japanese novel, it’s not for the impatient. This is very far from the warm and inviting style of Studio Ghibli. That said, if you give it time to blossom, it’s a meditative, moving and deeply odd experience. Some might compare its effect to the Japanese game Yume Nikki.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (2017) — Starz

If you need something lighter, try this hilarious Franco-Belgian film. Big Bad Fox is an ultra-fun collection of misadventures set on and around a farm. The character acting and comedic timing are impeccable (it’s no wonder the Hilda team has been studying them). Like Marona, you can also find this one on Hulu, Prime Video and Hoopla.

Headlines of the week

Upstart films vie for funding at Cartoon Movie

This week, the Cartoon Movie forum in France hosted dozens of pitches from prospective feature films. The event is vital to the animation ecosystem in Europe — it lets producers show their projects at an early stage to potential investors and distributors. Cartoon Movie 2021 was held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Interesting pitches weren’t in short supply this year. One highlight was the Czech project Golem — a stop-motion labor of love by director Jiří Barta, who’s been trying to make this film since the 20th century. There’s also Sorya by Denis Do, the rising star behind 2019’s Funan. His new film looks to chronicle a woman’s journey of self-discovery in Cambodia.

Catsuka, which is thankfully back after a fire destroyed its servers this week, has shared the pitch trailers for two French films. Ugo Bienvenu’s Arco imagines a world where rainbows are time-traveling people, and its trailer showcases an interesting Ghibli influence. Liane-Cho Han’s The Character of Rain, based on a Belgian novel, is about a toddler who believes herself to be a god. Its trailer isn’t one to miss.

The big prize of Cartoon Movie 2021, named the Eurimages Co-Production Development Award, went to Shadows. This Franco-Belgian project is directed by Nadia Micault and based on a graphic novel. Per Variety, it follows “two children [who] flee a region devastated by blood-thirsty horsemen in order to seek a better life in the Other World.”

To see the other films pitched at Cartoon Movie this year, you can browse the official website.

Bombay Rose debuts

Speaking of niche projects with major distributors — Bombay Rose came to Netflix on Monday. This Indian animated feature tells a sprawling story about people in Mumbai, and has grabbed great reviews. It comes from Gitanjali Rao, a director known for animating her films entirely by herself.

But Bombay Rose is a departure for Rao. Instead of working solo, she oversaw an animation team at the Mumbai-based Paperboat Animation Studios, which tried hard to capture her style. The film was reportedly made with nothing more than Photoshop, Flash and After Effects. Its animation is highly unusual, but captivating. Don’t miss this one if you’re a Netflix subscriber.

Netflix shows off Yasuke

In 16th-century Japan, an African samurai named Yasuke served under Oda Nobunaga. This April, Netflix and LeSean Thomas (Cannon Busters) will take Yasuke’s story and run with it. Their series Yasuke follows the title character through an ancient Japan rife with magic.

The Japanese studio MAPPA (Jujutsu Kaisen, Dorohedoro) is handling the animation, while the soundtrack comes from producer Flying Lotus. Yasuke’s six episodes are set to drop on April 29.

Soyuzmultfilm moves to start a TV channel

On March 4, the Russian paper Izvestia reported that Soyuzmultfilm is in talks to start its own cable TV channel. We’re getting to this story a little late, as the Russian Animated Film Association only picked it up this week. However, it’s still a fascinating development that’s worth unpacking.

If the troubled making of Hoffmaniada illustrates Soyuzmultfilm’s past, this news illustrates its present. The studio is on the rebound, thanks in part to new management and renewed government subsidies. There’s also YouTube, where Soyuzmultfilm-affiliated accounts have racked up billions of views in recent years. One of them, started in 2018, reached the billion mark just this week.

A representative told Izvestia that the TV channel is part of Soyuzmultfilm’s “long-term development strategy.” It’s also investing in original series like the popular Orange Moo-Cow — and this week signed a deal to broadcast its new cartoons in Vietnam. In a long interview with Forbes Russia, CEO Yuliana Slashcheva recently said the company would open Disneyland-style themed entertainment centers after the pandemic ends.

As for the TV channel, Izvestia claims that Soyuzmultfilm is negotiating with a children’s station called Multilandia, which could serve as the basis for the new venture. This part of the story is still unconfirmed, so only time will tell.

Last word

We hope you’ve enjoyed this week’s newsletter! It’s been a month since we started publishing on Substack, and we’re very happy with the response so far. As always, please let us know if there’s interesting global animation you’d like us to cover in future editions.

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Until next week!