Jack Frost aka Morózko
Genre: Children’s, Fantasy
Director: Aleksandr Rou
Stars: Alexander Khvylya, Natalya Sedykh, Eduard Izotov
A fairy-tale about a conceited young man and a young woman with a tyrannical step-mother, who must overcome magical trials in order to be together.
In 1997, Mystery Science Theater 3000 presented an episode where Mike & The Bots riffed on an obscure Russian film, Jack Frost. It’s a great episode, one of my favorites, but not necessarily becase of the quality of the riffing – in 1997 that movie intrigued the hell out of me. It took a few years to find a copy of Morozko on DVD (the copy I had was a Russian DVD from 2000 called Father Frost), and it was one of those movies I’d watch quite frequently – showing it to friends to allow them to provide their own reaction before sharing the MST3K episode with them. In 2003, I wrote and produced a children’s play that was just an abridged version of Jack Frost. I wouldn’t say that I love Morozko (it’s a strange, goofy thing) but I certainly enjoy the hell out of it. Why?
Morozko is a traditional Russian fairy tale and this film adaptation is close enough to its source material. If you ever get a chance to read Morozko it’s work the effort – wasn’t that hard to find a copy in 1997 and now, with more efficient online resouces, it’s even easier. Let’s look at some of the key differences between the story and the film, of which there aren’t too many.
Lovely, humble Nastya is despised bu her stepmother who favors her own mean-spirited and ugly daughter Marfushka. Similar to Cinderella, the stepmother constantly piles work on Nastya and calls her things like “wicked viper” and “evil little witch.” In the story the stepmother is described as “her mouth was so full of venom that her teeth itched,” something the film captures quite well.
Meanwhile there is Ivan, a boastful young man going out to see the world. He is accosted by bandits (Which are depicted as Tartars in both book and film) who rob him. Eventually Ivan meets Father Mushroom who gifts him with a bow and arrows. When Ivan is boastful and not grateful enough, however, he is turned into a bear and must see and learn the error of his ways in order to become human again.
Nastya’s evil stepmother is attempting to find a husband for her daughter – but no suitor is interested as they find Nastya to be more beautiful and perfect because she is. In fact that’s what initially intrigued me about the film in the first place: Nastya’s beauty. A part cut from the film adaptation is Nastya’s talking dog who riled the step-mother and spoils her attempts to find her daughter a husband. She alternately beats the dog or tries to bribe him with pancakes before deciding to have the father take Nastya into the woods and leave her for dead.
Alone in the woods, Nastya encounters the embodiment of the winter cold, Jack Frost (moroz krasnyj nos) who takes a liking to the sweet, innocent girl and offers to save her. Unfortunately, through the machinations of an evil spirit (Baba Yaga), Nastya is frozen in a deep sleep.
Ivan is in love with Nastya and searches the forest for her. He encounters Baba Yaga (called “Hunchacked Fairy” in the English dub of the film) who interferes and tries to prevent Ivan from finding Nastya. He does find her and through true love and a kiss awakens her. They’re married and lauded with gifts. The evil stepmother sends her own daughter into the woods to encounter Jack Frost and hope for the same gift. In the film, Jack Frost sends the ugly daughter back in embarrassment with a humiliating farce for gifts. In the story, Jack Frost kills her and sends the cold corpse back to the stepmother. So, the good people live happily ever after and the mean, selfish people suffer.
Part of my appreciation for this goofy film comes from the fact that I was really getting in to Russian literature and history at that time. I was going through all the novels of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak. The story itself is VERY Russian in it’s presentation and tone, but this film is from 1964 – during the era of the Communist Soviet Union. It was my misunderstanding then that the only films Soviet citizens were allowed at this time were propaganda or endless viewings of Battleship Potemkin or Alexander Nevsky.
I was wrong about what Soviet citizens viewed however. Sure, there was always a lot of propaganda at the time but there were still new films made, films that fit with the Soviet ideal, films that didn’t present any new ideas which would threaten the government’s iron grip on the people’s minds. While Morozko is a traditional Russian folktale that has some pre-Communism situations (notions of “class,” people obtaining private wealth) the film itself presents a lot of socialist ideals in a rather unobtrusive and subversively pleasing way.
Socialism is not just a political ideology – it’s also a philosophy centered around everyone working together for the common good; humility is the greatest of virtues, the purpose of one’s life is that of sacrifice for their fellow man. These ideals are shown in Jack Frost first with Ivan’s punishment for his pride and the necessity to be humble for others. Nastya is the pricture of humility, living her life ONLY for the sake of others with not a thought for her desires. In fact she chooses to go out in to the woods to probably die just for the sake of her needy father. For these actions Nastya and Ivan are eventually rewarded. This is in contrast to the evil step-mother whose only goal is to obtain wealth for herself and her ugly daughter through the selfish exploitation of others. Ultimately, Jack Frost is a tale about the socialist ideal of self-sacrifice for others bringing rewards greater than any selfish action.
Jack Frost Today
Outside of Russia and it’s neighbors Jack Frost had little exposure. It was shown on Czhech and Slovak television annually since 1965 under the title Mrazik. I don’t know if it still is shown every year but based on an inquiry on a Czech version of Yahoo Answers it seems to be. The film was available in the United States as a VHS titled Magical Wonderland and, obviously, a VHS titled Jack Frost which landed in the laps of the folks at MST3K. Without the memorable episode of MST3K it’s not likely that many people in the U.S. would have known of Jack Frost aside from the offhand mention it recieves in literary discussions of the original Morozko fairy tale.
There was a DVD released in 2000 under multiple titles – the key feature on teh DVD being its 9 different language tracks. I’m guessing that Jack Frost has more cultural recognition throughout Eastern Europe (hence the 9 differnt languages) and in the United States is mostly likely picked up by collectors of the obscure or fans of the MST3K episode.
Apparently there is a 2006 animated film from Russia, Dobryna Nikitch and Zmea Gorynych, that has moments where it is a parody of Morozko. I’ve not seen this film at all and, according to it’s brief mention on Wikipedia, is also a parody of Star Wars, The Matrix and other famous films. The fact that jokes and elements of Morozko can fit with modern parody of Star Wars and The Matrix seems to tell me that the film and its story are much more remembered in Russia – that its not the funny little obscurity it is seen as in the United States.
While the episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of my favorites, and usually the most common way I watch Jack Frost, it is worth seeking out a pristine, unriffed version of Morozko just to see it from a cultural and historic perspective. It’s the exact same film but without the riffing one is able to explore different ideas about the movie. Actually, I’m thinking of showing it to my kids this holiday season to see what they think of it.