While many Christmas movies in English-speaking countries tend to focus around the festive season and sometimes feature a jolly chap with a white beard and red winter gear, Czech festive viewing often centres on fairy tales. There is a long tradition of TV and film adaptations, from The Proud Princess (Pyšná Princezna) to the classic Three Wishes for Cinderella (Tři oříšky pro Popelku).
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More recently, the popular father-and-son team of Zdeněk and Jan Svěrák got in on the action with Three Brothers, a cheerful fairy tale musical for kids that weaves together three very familiar tales…
Svěrák Sr, who wrote the screenplay, has a nice role as the Teacher, a kindly scholar serving as the film’s narrator. In one of its few self-consciously postmodern touches, the Teacher’s audience is represented by the silhouettes of a group of children who occasionally pop up at the bottom of the screen to interrupt or interact with him.
Once he has settled his young listeners down, the Teacher recounts the tale of three brothers – Jan (Tomáš Klus), Pepa (Vojtěch Dyk) and Matěj (Zdeněk Piškula). They are handsome, strapping, good-natured lads who decide to leave their home on the farm to explore the world and find themselves a bride each. Along the way, their journey leads them into three famous fairy tales…
The first is an entertaining re-telling of Sleeping Beauty. A King and Queen are having trouble getting pregnant, and they’ve been through every cure that the court physician can offer. In desperation, the forgetful King visits a hideous old crone (entertainingly played by Jiří Lábus dressed as a woman), who brews up a mysterious potion. The witch doesn’t want payment, just an invite to the child’s christening.
The potion works a treat and the King and Queen become the happy parents of a beautiful baby girl, but sure enough, the forgetful monarch neglects to invite the witch to the christening. The witch crashes the ceremony and places a deathly curse on the child, dooming the girl to a century of slumber should she prick her finger on her 16th birthday.
It is a lively re-telling of the story, featuring good use of low budget special effects. The curse freezes everyone in mid-motion and sinister vines entwine the castle, which gave me a shudder as it recalled the grim, gruesome killer plant movie The Ruins.
Next up is Little Red Riding Hood. The youngest brother of the three, Matej, goes hunting in the woods, where he meets some talking forest creatures who warn him about the big bad wolf. The beast waylays a young girl on the way to visit her sick grandma. Red is so innocent that she thinks the wolf is a stray dog and gives it some sausage to eat… but that’s not enough, and the creature demands to know the way to grandma’s house.
The wolf design for this segment is lots of fun. It’s a huge, mangy, snaggle-toothed monster that manages to be menacing, funny and pathetic all at the same time. So many family films are CGI nowadays that it is refreshing to see filmmakers using old-school practical effects to make a fairy tale movie, and the wolf is perhaps the highlight of Three Brothers.
The last story, based on a 14th-century Czech fairy tale called The Twelve Months, is maybe the weakest. It is certainly the least fun and most repetitive. Hot-headed Pepa, riding through the snow on his continuing search for a suitable wife, enters a snowbound hamlet and encounters a beautiful young woman, Maruška (Sabina Rojková) fetching water from the well. She lives with her wicked stepmother and stepsister, who make her do all the household chores. They become bitterly jealous when they see how the handsome rider reacts to her beauty, and the mother sends her out into the wild wintry woods to gather some violets out of spite.
The girl sets out on her impossible task and encounters twelve solemn men sitting in a circle. They are the months of the year, apparently led by Great January (Bolek Polívka). Recognising that Maruška is pure of heart, April uses his powers to bring a patch of spring early so the flowers can grow. On returning with the violets, Maruška’s stepmother sends her out on another erroneous errand, this time for strawberries… you get the gist.
The framing device of the three brothers and their individual quests is effective enough without adding anything particularly new to the oft-told tales, which are recapped in a friendly, slightly chaotic kind of way. The Svěráks seem to have very little ambitions with the stories other than to tell them again in an approachable way for a young audience. It will certainly be children who get the most out of this movie. With the possible exception of the wolf, who might be a bit scary for very young kids, it is a reassuringly bright and child-friendly adventure.
Parents are unlikely to feel too put out by watching Three Brothers with their children. It bounces along at a decent pace and is very easy on the eye thanks to Svěrák’s crowd-pleasing instincts, with good use of CGI and practical effects. Add some upbeat performances, a few catchy tunes and a bit of slapstick thrown in for comic relief, and Svěrák’s fairy tale is a solid yet uninspiring choice for the holiday period.
Three Brothers is showing on Czech Netflix at the time of writing. You can also find a very interesting article about the tradition of Czech TV and film fairytales here.
This article was first published by the Prague Daily Monitor.