Prokofiev’s famous work is brought to the screen via stop motion animation in this Oscar-winning short film. Bleak and stylish, the short also eschews the usual narrator and goes silent.
Little Red Riding Duck
Peter and the Wolf is a rare bit of Russian pop culture that has burrowed its way deep into the American consciousness. This 2006 version was adapted and directed by Suzie Templeton and it makes the bold move of doing away with Peter and the Wolf’s signature ingredient: the narrator. Sergei Prokofiev wrote the piece with children in mind and it not only introduces them to the concept of leitmotif, it also is meant to feature robust narration to explain the tale.
A celebrity narrator has always been a key secret to the work’s success and doing without one was risky for this collaboration between British and Polish talents. It all worked out in the end and the film walked away with the Best Animated Short Academy Award.
The story should be reasonably familiar: A little boy named Peter sneaks out of his grandfather’s house and runs into a wolf. The wolf gulps down the family duck but Peter and a little bird work together to trap the wolf and bring him to the zoo.
The film adds a prologue showing Peter being bullied by older boys. This seems quite unnecessary as a way to create sympathy for Peter. He’s a nice kid who is kind to animals, we like him, we like him! The lily thoroughly painted, the film only really picks up once our young hero leaves his grandfather’s house and the Prokofiev score kicks in.
The good news is that this film is absolutely gorgeous! I am a big fan of stop motion and the eye for detail makes this a rewarding film for rewatches. The texture of Peter’s jacket, the fur of the wolf, the eyes of the characters, the knitwear… A lot of love and effort was poured into this production and it shows in every frame. This is what I love to see in stop motion: the kind of texture and handmade items that simply cannot be replicated in cel or CGI.
The lack of narrator and eschewing of title cards means that the film embraces the silent cinema in a way that is all too rare these days. The story is perfectly clear from the actions and expressions of the characters and we never once miss these crutches. It’s a bold move that pretty much only survives in animation these days (most live-action silents, classic and modern, use title cards) and the risk pays off in richer storytelling.
Let’s talk about the music. Now I have to make a confession. Russian classical music is absolutely my thing, from Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov to Glière and Kalinnikov. In my opinion, Prokofiev invented the modern film score as we know it with his brilliant work on Alexandre Nevsky and I cannot get enough of his Waltz Suite. But… I really don’t like Peter and the Wolf.
Look, I get the appeal. An orchestra gets to hire a celebrity who cannot necessarily play classical music, the celebrity gets to ham up the narration, the audience gets an accessibly classical piece but STICK A FORK IN IT! Nothing irritates me more than a nice block of classical radio interrupted by the latest celebrity iteration of this thing. Yes, I’m very glad you won a Tony and an Emmy but please go away. If I wanted to listen to a kid’s book on audio, I would have downloaded some Roald Dahl.
I am a firm believer in tossing children into the deep end of the cultural pool. My parents had me listening to Wagner, Vaughan Williams, Rimsky-Korsakov and the harpsichord music of Wanda Landowska at a very early age. Peter and the Wolf, Amahl and the Night Visitors, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra and anything by Leroy Anderson annoyed me as a kid and it all annoys me now.
It’s not that Prokofiev’s music is not good, it is, it’s just that the way it is presented to kids is often patronizing and I do not like to be patronized, I never have. “Here’s classical with a talking famous person because you clearly can’t handle Götterdämmerung.” I’m a grumpy, insufferable classical snob, I’ve been one since before I was in kindergarten and I am not going to change.
The long and the short of it is that the source material for this film ain’t my favorite and, yes, I understand what Prokofiev was doing, I just don’t enjoy it. If it introduced you to classical, I am very happy for you but I would be willing to bet cash money that Bugs Bunny’s What’s Opera, Doc has probably won more converts.
There are several reviews online that complain about this film being too intense for small children. Normally, I am not too sympathetic but this short does indeed have a G rating and I fail to see how the far less intense Up (2009), Despicable Me (2010) and Shaun the Sheep (2015) were all slapped with PG ratings. Peter and the Wolf is legit scary at certain passages and I would have freaked the heck out as a kid if I had seen it, especially since my pet goose was eaten by coyotes.
I think the MPAA simply proved their uselessness once again, saw that it was short and animated and rubber stamped the G rating. I do not appreciate it and I am angry for the little animal loving kids who might have innocently stumbled into watching this film. I don’t hold this against the film, the MPAA is 100% to blame, but I do understand why parents would be upset.
A common refrain when discussing this short is that it is an improvement on the 1946 Disney version. While I certainly agree that Disney had a talent for infantilizing most things he touched, I have to say that the company did a pretty good job of interpreting Peter and the Wolf for American audiences. Prokofiev was a fan of Disney’s work (and vice versa) and the two men met, though never formally collaborated, and so we can confidently state that our composer was not opposed to cute chirping birds and other House of Mouse flourishes. The duck lives and the narration by Sterling Holloway is so good that it won this grump over.
(Spoiler) The 2006 film, of course, keeps the duck stone dead and inside the wolf’s stomach but it does have an ending that really tests our suspension of disbelief more than the Disney happy ending. Peter decides to let the wolf go. In the middle of a busy town square. Look, I hate trophy hunting too but that’s a bit too movieland for me. Don’t go killing ducks for the “realism” and then have angry wolves released into a street filled with people and have everyone suddenly develop mutual respect or something. By all means, change the ending to avoid celebrating trophy hunting but don’t try to pull that “we need to be authentic” nonsense on water fowl fanciers. Sorry, Disney wins this round.
Peter and the Wolf suffers from the same issues as its source material. Is it for kids or adults? Does it know? The animation is absolutely stunning, as is the production design, but the aftertaste of the film is not a pleasant one. I enjoy my Slavic tragedies as much as the next nerd but this story has never done it for me in any format. Technically, this film is supreme and I applaud the filmmakers for skipping the narrator and embracing the grammar of silent films but I just cannot quite warm to it. Obviously, your reaction may be different but I would be very cautious about screening it for a child.
Where can I see it?
Peter and the Wolf is available on DVD and via streaming.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.