Jiří Trnka (1912-1969) was a Czech puppet-maker, an illustrator, an animator, and a film director who was also considered the “Walt Disney of Eastern Europe.” He attended the School of Applied Arts in Prague, where he apprenticed as a puppeteer from 1929 to 1935. After that, he worked as an illustrator for many children’s books. In the 1940s, he began to study animation by making some short films. After some success with traditional animation, Trnka moved to stop-motion puppet animation. For this installment of Animation Corner, I’ll be looking back at Trnka’s first two feature films, the stop-motion animated The Czech Year and the stop-motion animated The Emperor’s Nightingale.
Directed by Trnka, 1947’s The Czech Year traces the passage of a year in the Czech countryside, showcasing traditional customs and tales in six sequences entitled “Shrovetide,” “Spring,” “Legend About St. Prokop,” “The Fair,” “The Feast,” and “Bethlehem.” Based on a book illustrated by Mikoláš Aleš, this debut feature from Trnka was hailed as the most ambitious and original animated film since Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia. Trnka’s puppets were superbly rendered, aiding in bringing folk legends, songs, and dances to life. This critically acclaimed film was a hit in Czechoslovakia and attracted international attention to Czech animation. It would go on to win a few awards, including the International Prize for an Animated Picture at the 1947 Venice Film Festival (it would also receive the Biennial Medal from the same festival the following year).
Co-directed by Trnka and Milos Makovec, 1949’s The Emperor’s Nightingale centers on a lonely boy who dreams up a fantastical world based entirely on the toys and other objects that surround him. His story revolves around a Chinese emperor who longs to hear the authentic voice of a nightingale but must settle for an imitation one. Based on the fairy tale The Nightingale by Hans Christian Andersen, the film features live actors Helena Patrockova and Jaromir Sobota in the prologue (the rest of the film is stop-motion animated). Boris Karloff would serve as narrator for the U.S. release in 1951. Vaclav Trojan, who had scored The Czech Year, reunites with Trnka to provide another terrific score for this film. This critically acclaimed film proved to be an international success; among the film’s accolades was the Golden Leopard Award at the Locarno International Film Festival.
(Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any trailers for either film.)