As a genre fueled by the fantastic, colorful, and absurd, animation stretches storytelling beyond the realm of reality and logic. Although every genre, cartoon-related or otherwise, has been subjected to sanitized sellout flicks as the cinematic medium grows increasingly oversaturated, most mainstream animated films—except for (some) Pixar outings—have been neutered of any substantive artistry. Conversely, lesser-known jewels and artistic outliers linger within the depths of streaming services or obscure YouTube playlists.
Contrarily, while Marcell Jankovics‘ opus “Son of the White Mare” might not qualify as a recent addition to the genre, considering the film originally debuted in 1981, this psychedelic action-adventure epic serves as a reminder that the animation genre excels most when talent and creativity supplant the desire to capitalize on trends or cater to the lowest common denominator.
Stitched together from a collection of Hungarian folktales and legends, “Son of the White Mare” depicts the adventures of Treetearer, the third son of a horse goddess, a warrior destined to save the cosmos from the reign of three evil entities who have captured three princesses within the depths of the Underworld. Alongside his two brothers, Stonecrumbler and Ironkneader, the trio set off on a quest to restore order to the universe.
Describing “Son of the White Mare” as beautiful does not remotely approach the praise that Jankovics’ masterpiece deserves, because—from a visual standpoint—the film is unlike anything you have ever seen, although its influence on modern animation can be detected almost immediately; ‘White Mare,’ either consciously or not, has clearly inspired the work of modern-day animators like Genndy Tartakovsky (“Samurai Jack“). Luscious colors, indescribable energy, and near-incomprehensible visions exist within every isolated frame of this 90-minute wonderland.
At the risk of exuding hyperbole, the talents of Jankovics and his vast assortment of animators defy description. “Son of the White Mare” is a certified sensory assault, but simultaneously manages to emanate a hypnotic aura, although the drastically disparate sensations magically coexist within a harmonic tandem, equipping the film with a momentum that maintains an unstoppable rhythm.
With an entrancing grace, “Son of the White Mare” manages to fuse its matchless style with spellbinding substance as themes of destruction, peace, and unity swirl together with number-based motifs and mesmerizing symbolism. Beneath the film’s celestial journey into the mind-expanding firmaments of space and time exists a commentary on the increasingly violent state of civilization, which is physically embodied by the “dragons” that Treetearer battles.
Modern cynicism battles ancient optimism within the Underworld—noticeably, one of the colossi that Treetearer wrestles combats the hero with military weaponry while another dragon adopts the form of a shape-shifting dystopic cityscape. Furthermore, a call to revive empathy and belief beats at the heart of “Son of a White Mare,” and the film’s emphasis on bravery in the face of extreme evil—whose real-life correlation is likely the communistic state of Jankovics’ homeland—continues to ring true decades later.
Likewise, the theme and motif of repetition, pertaining to cycles of violence and destruction, provides a resonant intellectual undercurrent to complement the overflow of sumptuous illustrations. The fictional journey of mountain-moving gods loops arm-in-arm with the earthbound clash between human beings and corrupt institutions. Equally, the film’s climactic advocacy of hope and solidarity offers a genuinely profound statement to an already spectacular work of art.
Few films in the 21st century personify the unrestrained potential of animated storytelling better than “Son of the White Mare.” The film’s social commentary endures untainted; its visual presence remains unparalleled, and its influence abides irrefutable. Every intention that “Son of the White Mare” sets out to achieve, Jankovics’ film accomplishes without error—it’s a work of genius that deserves to be watched, dissected, and revisited for years to come. [A]
A new 4K restoration of “Son of the White Mare” debuts in Virtual Cinemas on August 21.