Phaeton, The Son of the Sun [Фаэтон сын Солнца] (1972)

17 min.; Russia; dir. Vasily Livanov; produced by Soyuzmultfilm

The Greek myth of Phaeton is the basis for this atmospheric short about the structure of the solar system, which features a variety of animation styles. The subject matter melds the realms of science and myth, and reflects both the prominence and ambition of the Soviet space program during this period.

Cosmonauts are sent on a spaceship called “Phaeton 1” to explore the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The mission is based on the hypothesis that the belt originated from fragments of a deceased planet. An interlude explaining why the spaceship has this name retells the story of Phaeton and his doomed chariot ride with vivid images and music. It is suggested that the myth is “poetic evidence of an actual occurrence: the destruction of the planet Phaeton as a result of space catastrophe.”

The broader idea is then introduced that connections between ancient events and artefacts and contain the mystery of contact between Earth and other worlds. After the cosmonauts arrive at the asteroid belt, the question of how the planet Phaeton might have been destroyed is considered, and there is a parallel drawn between Jupiter’s gravity and Zeus’ thunderbolt as agents of destruction. The film ends by imagining the alien inhabitants of this planet, the Phaetonians, visiting earth and making contact with ancient native peoples. This film certainly seems to engage with the pseudoscientific theories of paleocontact or “ancient astronaut theory,” which became popular in the 1970s (and remain so today).


Die Irrfahrten des Odysseus, or Odyssea (1986)

68 min; Jiri Tyller, director

A joint production by DEFA-Studio für Trickfilme (East Germany) and Krátký Film Praha (Czechoslovakia)

1986’s Die Irrfahrten des Odysseus (or “The Wanderings of Odysseus,” also known by its Czech title Odyssea) is a little-known Czech feature film that was released by DEFA, the state-owned film studio of East Germany, with a soundtrack by the Dresdner Philharmonie.

While it does not strictly follow the Homeric text, it offers quite a close adaptation, with the elements arranged in a “straightened plot” (i.e., no flashbacks) that covers a lot of ground but also moves along ploddingly at times. This is largely due to its distinctive “cut-out” animation style, which is artsy and eye-catching but also unnatural in its limitation of bodily movement and facial expression. Martin Lindner notes that while the film has elements that might appeal to a youthful audience (e.g., a focus on Telemachus, little graphic violence), it doesn’t really succeed as such because it is too condensed (2008: 49). He goes on to note how the film ends on a strange note, not with a happy scene of familial reunion, but with a segue from Odysseus’ killing of the suitor Antinous to a montage of Greek vase paintings and a voiceover meditation on the undying wisdom of the ancients, which adds to its “somber” air.


Helen La Belle (1957)

14 min.

Direction and animation: Lotte Reiniger; production: Fantasia Productions Ltd., London

A stop-motion “filigree ballet” in color by famed silhouette animation pioneer, Lotte Reininger, based on the 1864 comic operetta, “La belle Hélène” by Jacques Offenbach, this short film retells the tale of the judgement of Paris and of his abduction of Helen in the style of a burlesque parody.

Reininger’s gorgeously wrought version stays true to the spirit of the opera — there is no dialog, the music of the operetta accompanies the animation (though not in the video version above) — and it displays many humorous touches, including the gods as capricious meddlers, a caricatured depiction of Menelaus as an old man, and Helen sailing away in pursuit of Paris on a giant goose.


Spartacus (2005)

1 season / 13 half-hour episodes; Italy

produced by Mondo TV Spa; directed by Orlando Corradi

A low-budget TV series for children (ages 8-12) dedicated to telling the story of the famous Thracian gladiator-turned-freedom fighter and the slave revolt he led in 73 BCE. Much of the violence has been minimized for its younger audience.

From Mondo TV: “Our story promptly begins with the unfair trial of a young Roman legionnaire called Spartacus and his sentence to gladiatorial slavery. The years pass as Spartacus witnesses first hand the injustices and oppressions that the slaves and peasants must suffer. Thus, in 73 A.D., having chosen the right moment after reuniting a group of some 70,000 rebels, Spartacus marches against Rome in the name of freedom.

Only a legion commanded by Longinus Crassus (among which we find the young Julius Caesar as well) can put down his army of rebels. Along the Appian way at least 6,000 rebels are crucified as a warning not to disobey Rome* . Two of Spartacus’s lieutenants, Gallus and Egizius, will manage to save themselves and integrate into Roman society, in which they will in the end become two hardened defenders.”

*note: this is not depicted in the show


The North Wind and the Sun: A Fable by Aesop (1972)

3 min.; Canada

Design, Animation, Narration: Rhoda Leyer; Supervising Editor and Director: Les Drew

From the National Film Board of Canada: “This short animated film illustrates the fable in which the warm sun proves to the cold wind that persuasion is better than force when it comes to making a man remove his coat.”

Based on Aesop’s fable (Perry Index #46)


Aesop’s Fables [まんがイソップ物語] (1983)

60 min.; Japan (aka Manga Aesop Monogatari, though not to be confused with the TV show of the same name!)

Director: Norio Hikone; Production: Toei Animation

From Anime News Network: “Aesop is a trouble-making young boy who finds himself in another world filled with creatures he never believed to exist, such as fairies and talking donkeys. He sets off to find a way back to the normal world. On his journey he befriends many classical creatures from well-known fables and encounters many trials, each teaching him a valuable lesson.”

Pan-tele-tron (1957)

10 min; United Kingdom

produced by Philips and Pearl & Dean; directed by Digby Turpin

Won the 1958 BAFTA Award for Best Animated Film

This is an animated marketing short produced by the electronics conglomerate Philips, which tells the story (in a distinctive modern design style) of the development of the telecommunications industry. It begins back in ancient times when only Zeus could communicate over long distances, and both Zeus and Hermes make regular appearances throughout the film, watching approvingly as humans invent different mechanisms and technologies for transmitting messages: the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, RADAR, and finally, satellites. The short concludes by noting that we have now “caught up with the gods” and ends with a nod to the company that has made much of this possible, Philips.

Unterwegs mit Odysseus (1979)

13 episodes; 30 min. each; German language (no subtitles)

Directed by Tony Munzlinger; written by Anton Zink; produced by Südwestfunk

 Unterwegs mit Odysseus (Travelling with Odysseus) was a live-action, youth-oriented documentary TV series that followed ship captain, director and cartoonist Tony Munzlinger and his family on a sea voyage (on a boat called the ‘Odyssey’) as they re-traced the path of the hero from Troy to Ithaca. The live-action travel scenes were interspersed with hand-drawn animated segments by Munzlinger that retold the stories from Homer’s Odyssey in rhyme.


Lindner, M. (2017). “Mythology for the Young at Heart.” In A Companion to Ancient Greece and Rome on Screen, A.J. Pomeroy (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781118741382.ch23

The Smurfs: “The Trojan Smurf” (1984)

14 min.

Season 4, Episode 9 (1st half)

Gargamel fashions a giant wooden Papa Smurf statue that he intends to hide inside. He plans to have the Smurfs to find the statue and take it back to their village as a gift honoring their leader. Brainy falls for the ruse, but the Smurfs end up encountering many challenges in moving the statue to the village. After bouncing against sharp rocks and rolling down a hill, the statue falls into a river, where it is found by Bigmouth who adopts it as a toy doll. The Smurfs are able to retrieve it and present it to Papa Smurf, who expresses his suspicions about it. Gargamel and Azrael then jump out and try to grab some Smurfs, but they manage to push the villains back into the statue, tie a rope around it and abandon it in the forest, where Bigmouth finds and adopts it yet again.


Prometheus (1992)

2 min; directed by Marcell Jankovics, produced by Pannónia Filmstúdió, Hungary

This very short hand-drawn film depicts the Titan Prometheus as he struggles through time and space to bring fire to earth. He starts off young and full of vigor, accompanied by triumphant music, but by the end both he and the flame have aged. Will he succeed in his quest? The ending leaves it an open question.

The film recalls Jankovics’ earlier work, 1974’s ‘Sisyphus,’ which was nominated for an Academy Award.

Prometheus was a particularly potent figure in Soviet and Eastern Bloc art and culture — “Prometheus” was a popular name for bookstores in the USSR. He was characterized as a hero who fought against the gods in order to help mortals, who valued humanity more than himself, and who was tortured and suffered for his good deeds. The fire he brought to Earth was usually interpreted as the fire of knowledge and he was understood as fighting for equal rights for all, like a believer who longs for the coming of world communism (see also the animated films ‘Prometheus’ (1974) and ‘The Return from Olympus’ (1969) by Alexandra Snezkho-Blotskaya). Prometheus also taught people skills–for example, how to work with stone–and because of this he was viewed as an advocate for the working classes.

And yet, as a figure of revolt or resistance, he was also embraced by those who opposed the communist regime: for example, Prometheus was the name of a Russian underground avant-garde video art collective from the 1970s, while Prometheism was an important social movement in the early 20th c. that supported nationalist independence movements among non-Russian peoples living within Russian borders, which was crushed by Stalin’s purges. This duality made him a potent symbol as he could both uphold or destabilize dominant communist values.


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