Folklore and Mythology | Curator’s Perspective
I have always been fascinated with Greek mythology. I’m especially fascinated by the movie versions of these incredible tales (Clash of the Titans is a personal favourite). While most Greek mythology has come down in the form of epic poems, it was motion pictures that brought to life these fantastic stories filled with deities, heroes and mythological creatures.
For International Animation Day, I thought I’d try something different this year. I will take a look at several of our classic animated titles that deal with myths and folklore, from ancient Greece and beyond.
Without further ado, here are some NFB animated films inspired by these legends.
Pan was the son of the god Hermes and the nymph Dryope. He was born with a full beard, goat feet and horns (!). Known for his insatiable appetite for sex, Pan would often chase the nymphs in the forest of Arcadia. In our film version, Syrinx, he spots the eponymous nymph and almost catches her by a river that she cannot cross. At the last second, she prays to the nymphs to transform her so that she can escape his advances and is then turned into some reeds in the river. Frustrated that he can no longer satisfy his lust, Pan takes the reeds and fashions them into a musical instrument, which we now refer to as a panpipe. Animator Ryan Larkin used charcoal sketches to tell the bare bones of the story (the film clocks in at a lean three minutes!). Larkin also uses a flute arrangement of Debussy’s Syrinx to set the mood. Overall, a creepy rendition of a creepy Greek tale.
Another great Greek tale is that of Icarus. In this myth, Icarus’s father, Daedalus, was asked by King Minos of Crete to build the Labyrinth so that he could trap the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster born of a liaison between the Cretan bull and the King’s wife, Pasiphae. After Daedalus built the Labyrinth, King Minos imprisoned him in it, along with his son Icarus (to punish them for helping his daughter’s lover escape). Unable to escape by sea because Minos’s navy was patrolling the coast, Daedalus set about to build wings so that he and his son could escape by air. Using feathers and wax, he constructed wings for both. He warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, but the young man didn’t heed his advice and fell to his death when the sun melted the wax on the wings. The great Heracles (Hercules) later erected a tomb for Icarus. In the NFB’s animated version, directed by Paul Bochner, the story is told without words. Bochner uses detailed pencil drawings and a beautiful, moody score by Eldon Rathburn to retell the myth. His Minotaur is certainly a beast. His labyrinth, a tortuous maze. Daedalus and Icarus’s escape is wonderfully depicted, as is the subsequent disaster that befalls Icarus. This film has a simple beauty that fits the famous myth well.
The myth of the Phoenix, a bird that regenerates itself cyclically and rises from its own ashes, is well known and has its origins in Greek mythology, but also has roots in Hindu, Persian and Russian folklore. In the 1990 film The Phoenix, animator Gayle Thomas imagines a story where the Phoenix is captured in Arabia and exhibited in a zoo, much to the detriment of its health and well-being. Based on a book by Sylvia Townsend Warner, this version shows that mythological birds are no match for greed and impatience.
The ErlKing is based on the Goethe poem but has its roots in Danish folklore. The titular character is said to be an evil mythical elf who kills children who wander off into the woods for too long. This film is quite chilling and reminds me a great deal of the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. Director Ben Zelcowicz uses sand–on–glass animation to tell this terrifying story. According to what I have read, the Erlking’s motivations always remain unknown. He is just evil. Baritone Paul Berkolds sings the story in German to accompany the haunting images.
So, there you have it: four amazing films adapted from some amazing tales. Enjoy the films and be sure to check out our International Animation Day programming here.