I recently watched my son D’s reaction to Suzie Templeton’s Peter and the Wolf as closely as I watched the animated film itself. The 30-minute film is a child’s tale, but there are scenes that might take an older person’s explanation (in the way the Lion King’s “circle of life” could be considered by some parents to be thematically mature). Mainly, though, I wanted to see if the story would help jumpstart his appreciation for classical music in the way it helped me back when I was his age.
When I myself was three years old, my parents took me to see the Philadelphia Orchestra perform Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. I do not know if it was Eugene Ormandy himself who conducted the piece that day, or if it was one of his assistants, but I remember the narrator introducing each of the characters: Peter, his grandfather, a duck, a bird and the wolf, and the instrument that represented each one. To this day, it is the grumpy bassoon of the grandfather and the ominous French horns of the wolf that come most quickly to my mind when you mention Peter and the Wolf.
For those of us who grew up with the Prokofiev music and narration, there are probably some firm ideas on how Peter and the Wolf should look. One of Templeton’s most obvious changes is that she gets rid of the narrator. Templeton says one filmgoer complained that she had spoiled his childhood memories of the story, but many of us will instead be impressed by the meticulousness of the storytelling and the beauty of the filmmaking. The scene with the bird (a Russian crow in this case) attempting to fly with the help of a balloon is humorous and magical. The cat is elephantine. The basic plot remains the same. Peter is forbidden to leave the home of his stern grandfather, who warns him of the dangers of confronting the wolf who inhabits the area. The setting is updated to look like a part of Eastern Europe that has fallen on economic hard times. The audacious Peter is still the story’s hero.
It reportedly took Prokofiev four days back in 1936 to write the musical piece; it took Templeton and her crews, based in Lodz, Poland, five years to make this film interpretation, which they painstakingly pieced together using stop animation. (The formerly disappearing art form has recently been resurrected by filmmakers like Nick Park, who brought us Wallace and Gromit). Templeton made several research trips to places like St. Petersburg to inspire her to create what has been called a very “Russian look” to the film. The puppetmakers were meticulous in creating the details of the characters’ faces and bodies. The grandfather’s face is craggy. Peter looks longingly at the woods with the palest blue eyes. Interestingly, the puppets (which use ball and joint steel armatures) were said to be so complicated that the filmmakers heavily used changes in lighting and camera angles rather than facial manipulations to suggest changes in expression. The sets are elaborate; the filmmakers used hundreds of real trees to create a 60-foot long set for the forest. Templeton also makes some tweaks to Prokofiev’s simple plot: the hunters are bumbling and cruel, for instance. And in this more politically correct era (and film), the wolf is a wild but ambiguous figure. After Peter captures him, he allows the animal to slip away.