The latest feature from directors Reinis Kalnaellis and Valentas Askinis, The Golden Horse (Zelta zirgs) is an animated adaptation of the Janis Rainis play of the same name following a poor boy’s quest to save a princess from eternal damnation and, by proxy, his village from the tyrannical rule of an evil force that feeds on the tears of the townsfolk. Although the Latvian, Lithuanian, Danish and Luxembourgish co-production conforms to a tried and tested formula, it’s made somewhat more interesting in the way that it is framed through the lens of Latvian folklore.
Kicking off with some truly bizarre songs and a general overture of medieval regality,1 the film centres on the journey of Antis (Michel Turpel), a pauper, who is encouraged by White Father (Gilbert Johnson), a good wizard, to climb a treacherous mountain with the titular golden horse in pursuit of Princess (Leila Schaus), who has been thrust into eternal slumber by evil death spirit Black Mother (Ann Overstall). It’s a bizarre and sprawling take on a traditional fairytale, a little more complex than we’re used to experiencing from something like the Disney machine that likely has roots in the disconnects in cultural lore between (East European) and Western society. It may be a little too much to take on board for younger kids not familiar with the story, but its quirkiness – combined with its relative brevity, running at just under 80 minutes – hugely benefit its palatability. The first act, for example, is super dense and flies by at an impressive pace, introducing the world, the characters, plot motivations, and all other necessary tropes in a little under 10 minutes.
Unfortunately, Kalnaellis and Askinis lose much of this tight pacing in later moments which follow Antis on his quest up the mountain, which becomes mostly repetitive. That said, it’s in these sections that their animation style begin to shine. The film’s unique aesthetic sits somewhere between story book illustrations, video game graphics, and softer anime, drawing upon elements from Ralph Bakshi’s notorious The Lord of the Rings adaptation without its more psychedelia-infused components. The voice-acting is passable,2 the lip-syncing isn’t quite there – probably the result of its translation into English – and the design of most human characters are a little undercooked. In saying that, the ghoulish, stick-like villain Black Mother is constantly menacing, and very cool to look at, a definite highlight of the piece all around. The aforementioned songs hover between impressive and mediocre, as some verses translate proficiently while others flounder under clunky dialogue. However, all are inoffensive and none are earwormy, which places it a cut above most animated fare pitched at children and families.
While moments hint at positive gender politics – particularly a speech from White Father asserting that women are their own people and belong to no one – The Golden Horse suffers from the questionable portrayals of masculinity and femininity that afflict all of these sorts of films, reinforcing the institution of marriage, and the right to the hand of a Princess in marriage if one proves themself through physical feats and fulfills the night in shining armour role. The historical roots of this are probably far less malicious than one thinks: a film like The Golden Horse aims to stay true to its traditional and highly influential source material; additionally, it is much easier for children to follow a story if it doesn’t stray from the familiar. Neither of these facts make it right however, and The Golden Horse by no means approaches any of the revolutionary stuff to do with representation that recent animated films like Paranorman have achieved.
The Golden Horse is not the sort of film I would normally watch, and it is by no means a film pitched at my demographic, though I can say that it is a reasonable effort that made leaps and strides to capture my attention and succeeded (for the most part). There’s a lot to appreciate in its differentiation from the fully Westernised fairytales we’re used to seeing, and is therefore worth seeking out for families and the curious animation aficionados among us.