Color, 1981, 86 mins. 4 secs.
Directed by Marcell Jankovics Arbelos Films (Blu-ray) (US RA HD)
Less than a decade after he revolutionized European animation with the first animated Hungarian feature in 1973, Marcell Jankovics delivered one of the all-time great brain burners with 1981's Fehérlófia, known in English as Son of the White Mare. Derived from Hungarian folklore wrapping an odyssey story with plenty of surreal characters and fantastic adventures, the film took two years to complete and became Jankovics' second feature, a milestone in the art form despite its extreme scarcity for many years.
The plot, such as it is, involves a mystical white mare who breeds three powerful sons. Treeshaker is unaware of his siblings at first, focusing instead on the destructive dragon-men who have taken control of the land. He decides to embark on a quest to get rid of them once and for all, a journey to find their home in the underworld that also crosses his path with his two brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer. Their respective abilities that go along with their names prove to be an asset at first, but soon conflict erupts as they decide how to go about their mission. A fateful encounter at a powerful tree seems to be the key to their destiny, though ultimately it's up to Treeshaker to forge fully ahead where he discovers not only the dragons but three princesses whose story will intersect with his own.
A nonstop barrage of vivid colors that make Yellow Submarine look restrained, Son of the White Mare is a lot easier to parse now that we've had a few decades of Hiyao Miyazaki and many great works of European animation to digest what must have been a tricky sell outside of Hungary at the time. There's nothing here that you couldn't show older kids apart from perhaps some stylized non-sexual nudity, but this is probably going to appeal more to adult animation devotees who will be the most receptive to its psychedelic charms. As mentioned above, this film has been infernally hard to see for a long time unless you hunted down the Russian VHS tape or the early DVD from Hungary, both of which are tough to snag and reportedly featured extremely off-kilter color timing.
The 2021 Region A Blu-ray from Arbelos is a very welcome development for animation buffs, culled from an impressive 2019 restoration from the original camera negative that initially premiered at the Fantasia International Film Festival. The wait for it to hit home video was worth it as this is a one wild-looking disc; watch it on the biggest screen you can find and prepare to have your jaw drop. The DTS-HD MA Hungarian 1.0 mono track is also fully restored and sounds great, though the audio doesn't really even try to compete with the visual here; optional English subtitles are provided, of course.
Four additional Jankovics films are also included beginning with his first feature, 1973's János Vitéz (Johnny Corncob), which clocks in at 78m24s and also looks very nice with a restoration from the Hungary Film Archive. A lower res version of this restoration was streaming for a while with English subs on the Archive's YouTube page, but it looks a lot better here. This one's more of a straightforward romantic adventure about the title character's picaresque journey through wartime as a soldier, but it's rendered in a flamboyant psychedelic approach here as well with so many swirling colors you could get dizzy. Also included are three shorts: 1974's Sisyphus (2m22s), a grunt-filled adaptation of the famous boulder-rolling myth and an Oscar nominee for Animated Short Film; 1977's The Struggle(Küzdők) (2m34s), a clever look at the relationship between sculptor and subject; and 1968's Dreams on Wings (8m43s), a commercial for Air India taking an impressionistic, ink and watercolored tour around the globe. In the 2020 interview "Brighter Colors" (33m14s), Jankovics (who passed away in May of 2021) recalls his path from studying architecture to animation and the twists of fate that led him to forging his own visual style in Hungarian cinema. He also has some interesting insights into the inherent pitfalls of animation at the time when it was largely considered a children's domain, something he had to batter against through sheer ambition and persistence. After that you get a quick newsreel look (3m15s) at the making and promotion of János Vitéz with the director talking about adapting the epic poem of the title, including a look at the pots of 600 different colors that had to be used for the film, followed by the Arbelos U.S. trailer for Son of the White Mare. The packaging also comes with an insert booklet featuring essays by Eleanor Cowen and Charles Solomon about Jankovics' place in Hungarian cinema and the various influences that informed the main feature.