Vechera na khutore bliz Dikanki/The Night Before Christmas/Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1961)

First, a note on the title. Or titles, more accurately. The book this is taken from is a collection of short stories that translates to "Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka," and the story in question is "The Night Before Christmas." Because of this, it's not too surprising this has been released with both titles. In fact, both appear separately in the film, itself.

It's not the first adaptation of the work - I've already reviewed the 1913 version, which introduced me to the story. This version was directed by Alexander Rou, who'd go on to make Morozko a few years later. It shows: the two movies look similar in style. I'm not complaining, mind you - I enjoyed Morozko quite a bit.

The plot to this is very close to that of the 1913 adaptation, so I'll forego repeating the full synopsis. There are some shifts in how it's all presented that are worth highlighting, though. The 1913 version presented the hero, Vakula, as something of a comically inept character too stupid not to succeed. This version clearly wants to present him in a more favorable light. He's depicted as honest, honorable, and forthright, sort of the archetypical hero.

I liked him better in the earlier movie.

There are other similar tonal shifts I could have done without. There's more overt moralizing here around Oksana's vanity. To be fair, the moralizing doesn't extend to Solokha's witchcraft or her dalliances with demons or men, while it's more than happy to portray the village priest as a liar and hypocrite. Keep in mind this was made during Soviet rule, so anti-religious sentiment is unsurprising. Even within this context, it's still kind of fun to see a 1960s Christmas movie all but endorse witchcraft while villainizing Christianity. Sue me: I grew up in a small, religious town, and I delight in this kind of humor.

I was a bit surprised to see this version paint the royal family in a neutral to positive light, though perhaps I simply lack context of how Russia viewed its past at the time. Despite her extreme wealth, the tsarina is kind and generous towards Vakula and gifts him her slippers. Unlike the 1913 version, there's no real misunderstanding around his identity; he just shows up, asks humbly, and she's impressed by his sincerity.

Visually, the movie looks fantastic, with the obvious caveat that there are plenty of moments that date the film and remind you the budget was limited. Still, Rou manages to create some magical moments and images. The demon's costume and make-up are phenomenal: he looks and even moves a little like a live-action Grinch, but puts the Carrey version to shame. Needless to say, the actor deserves a great deal of credit for selling the physicality of the character.

I also want to call out some breathtaking miniature work when Vakula and the devil arrive in Saint Petersburg. You can tell they're models, but the detail in those shots is nothing short of incredible. Likewise, the sets are wonderful and succeed in creating the illusion of a fairytale world.

There's a little bit of 2-D animation at the beginning, first during the credits then in a short aside explaining why the devil hates Vakula. Seeing animation mixed with live-action is always a little jarring, but the animation is well executed and good on its own. It's not even as jarring as it could have been: stylistically, the movie feels like a live-action cartoon. That's a double-edged sword, honestly. The cartoonish devil is fantastic, but the two-dimensional side characters get a little tiresome after a while.

Not every choice is great, of course. Rou clearly loves reversing footage to create odd effects (he does this several times in Morozko, too). While there are moments where this technique is put to good use, there are a few where it serves no obvious purpose and is glaringly obvious (such as characters sliding uphill and trails disappearing before them). Likewise, there some overly sentimental bits using overlays and the like that hurt the pacing. But on the whole, the movie's visuals are innovative and enjoyable.   

I found the music somewhat mixed. Several songs were a bit simplistic, but the main love theme was beautiful.

It's honestly hard for me to judge this, because the 1913 version effectively spoiled the story. If I hadn't seen that, I think I'd have really enjoyed the bizarre twists of this tale. But knowing them all in advance made the experience drag in spots. Even so, there's a great deal to appreciate here. This is a fun little movie, but if you're only going to watch one Alexander Rou Christmas fantasy, I'd go with Morozko over this.