English Title: Cheburashka
Original Title: Cheburashka (Krokodil Gena, 1969; Cheburashka, 1971; Shapokliak, 1974 and Cheburashka idet v shkolu, 1983)
Country of Origin: Soviet Union
Director: Roman Kachanov
Screenplay: Roman Kachanov, Eduard Uspenskii
Cinematographer: Teodor Bunimovich
Art Director: Leonid Shvartsman
Runtime: 20 minutes
A small furry big-eared creature unknown to science is discovered in a crate of imported oranges by a grocer. The creature is so dazed by his long journey he promptly falls down and the grocer names him ‘Cheburashka’, from the Russian vernacular term ‘topple over’. Cheburashka is lonely but soon finds a friend in Gena, a kind crocodile bachelor who works in the local zoo and who is equally lonely. Together they perform a number of good deeds such as building a social club for lonely animals, constructing a children’s playground, halting the pollution of river, and helping repair a school. They become inseparable; always ready to help out those in need and keen to get involved in such worthy social activities such as the Young Pioneer movement. The local miscreant, an old woman named Shapokliak with her pet rat, Lariska, at first try to foil these civic-spirited actions, playing all kinds of unpleasant tricks on the pair. However, Shapokliak is soon won over by Gena’s gentlemanly conduct and Cheburashka’s child-like charm. Finally, Cheburashka is able to go to school and learn to read.
The four twenty-minute episodes of the Cheburashka series (Crocodile Gena, 1969; Cheburashka, 1971; Shapokliak, 1974 and Cheburashka Goes to School, 1983) remain probably the best-loved animations of all the Soviet period. The films manage to excel in every department. The stop-motion animation is of outstanding quality for its time, creating fully rounded personalities out of the sometimes crudely put together puppets and sets. With great economy of movement the animators convey a wide range of emotion and expression in their models. The combinations of a slightly washed-out pastel colour palette for the sets, a strong attention to detail in the modelling of individual realia items and cleverly achieved sense of depth and kineticism (gravity, inertia and momentum are almost tangible to the viewer) create the unmistakable world of Gena and Cheburashka – a world where talking giraffes and well-dressed gentlemanly lions rub shoulders with world-weary school directors, leather-jacketed taxi-drivers, highly strung factory owners and, of course, lonely bachelor crocodiles. Kachanov’s adaptation of Uspenskii’s stories retains the essentially kind wistfulness and irony of the original but adds a wicked sense of subversive humour to the mix, appreciated by children and adults alike. As well as absurdist moments, Kachanov includes mildly ironic side references to the endemic workplace theft, backsliding and officiousness of Soviet society. Especially memorable is the gentle deflating of the Pioneer movement: its snotty kids aren’t interested in the civic aspects of membership – they just want first prize in their contest and the status a uniform brings. Finally there is the unforgettable music – of both the songs and voices. Shainskii’s minor-key songs have become as memorable a part of the Cheburashka phenomenon as the animations themselves. The long-serving animation voice-over actor Vasilii Livanov, who went on to play Sherlock Holmes in the Soviet screen version, voices Gena. His, by turns, creaky, grumpily resigned and melodious voice is perfectly complimented by Klara Rumianova’s intensely sweet, childlike Cheburashka.
The Cheburashka series is much more than a well-executed quartet of short stop-motion films for children. As a cultural icon of the late Soviet period, the image of Cheburashka has been continually appropriated and reinvented by official and sub-cultures alike. It has served as the official mascot for the Russian Olympic team and its name used as a slang term for a variety of objects, some with ear-like appendages such as an Antonov cargo jet, others that are merely small or cute (a one-third-of-a-litre glass bottle). In sub-culture Cheburashka has long been appropriated for use in narrative jokes some of them bawdy, and more recently in a host of internet parodies, notably of the character of Yoda from Star Wars. Perhaps most interesting is his appearance in the post-Jungian theory of socionics where his character is used to illustrate a personality type that does not fall into any of the sixteen categories of introvert and extrovert types. In addition to Russia, Cheburashka has found success in Japan and Sweden.