A hedgehog gets lost in the fog on his way to visit a friend. That's the simple premise of this 1975 film by Russian animator Yuriy Norshteyn (Yuri Norstein), based on a children's story by Sergei Kozlov. However, not all is simple, either on the surface or below, in this little work of surprising, haunting beauty and darkness.
And there is darkness there. There's the physical darkness of the night and its dangerous creatures such as owls and bats (and man), and an emotional darkness as well. Or perhaps darkness is too strong a word. There's a sort of pensive quietness, a fog. There's Hedgehog's resignation to his fate in the river; his decision not to seek help from Bear Cub, who worriedly calls for him; the sense at the end that although Hedgehog is now safe, he is forever changed; that lingering image of the horse in the fog (an image I've found hard to shake, and one that has shown up in my writing).
This isn't to say this is a despairing story - far from it. Enthralled by the beauty of the fog and the horse, Hedgehog takes a risk, goes on a journey, is helped by kind souls (the dog and fish), and winds up safe in the familiar company of his friend. The journey has been frightening at times, but he's also experienced something important. The film is also charming and quirky. Little Hedgehog is adorable, his response to the owl's threatening antics is unexpected, and Bear Cub is caring and blustery.
The look of the piece adds a lot of its power. We can see the darkness, see the fog, see the faint glimmering of the fish below the water's surface. With striking images such as the swirling, falling leaves and the ghostly, surreal glimpse of an elephant, it's hard to imagine this story having the same effect in classic cartoon form. And Norshteyn's work looks so different because it is so different. His method, which is infamously meticulous and time consuming (his nickname is the "Golden Snail"), involves a series of glass panels that can be moved in relation to each other. He has spent years working on minutes of his project "The Overcoat."
The music, composed by Mikhail Meyerovich, is also an important element. I got to see Norshteyn speak a few years ago at the Balboa Theater in San Francisco (I was one of the few under-60s, one of the few non-Russians there), and he was accompanied by Gojogo, a band for whom Norshteyn has been an inspiration. At the event there were screenings of several of his works (including 20 minutes of what is completed of "The Overcoat") and Gojogo provided their own scores. As beautiful as their music is, it felt odd to watch "Hedgehog in the Fog" with different music. Nostalgia no doubt plays a part (for the animations I hadn't seen before, Gojogo's music sounded perfect), but the original goes together so well - visually, emotionally, musically.