Color, 1970, 81 mins. / Directed by Aleksandr Row / Starring Georgi Millyar, Andrei Katyshev, Tatyana Klyuyeva, Mikhail Pugovkin

Format: DVD - Ruscico (Russian Cinema Council)/Image (MSRP $29.99) / Letterboxed (2.35:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 5.1

Though ostensibly aimed at a family audience, this enchanting Russian fairy tale contains enough glorious eye candy and bizarre touches to keep fans of filmic fantasy thoroughly engaged for its all too brief running time. Directed with a sure hand by Aleksandr Row (Father Frost), this follows the basic template of Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast by deftly interweaving the mundane with the surreal, creating a cinematic banquet that easily transcends the "kiddie" label.

The powerful but jovial czar Yeremey the Bearded (Mikhail Pugovkin) lives in a sunny kingdom, though his idyllic life is turned upside down one day when he stares into a well and finds himself confronted by a magical subterranean ruler, the green, pointy-eared Chudo Yudo the Lawless (Georgi Millyar), who clutches onto the tsar's orange beard and threatens to drag him down into the fairy kingdom. Yeremey's freedom can only be granted if he agrees to provide Chudo Yudo with anything from the kingdom with which the tsar is not already familiar; finding these terms agreeable, the tsar returns home to discover that a new heir has been born. Chudo Yudo's demand for the baby results in a thwarted infant swap, leaving the false baby raised by the czar and the real heir spoiled into stunted infancy. Both named Andrei, the men enter a wild confusion of identity when Chudo Yudo's beautiful daughter, Barbara (Tatiana Klyuyeva), decides to marry and falls in love with the good Andrei, unaware of the challenges in store for both of them.

Though definitely Russian in flavor, Barbara deals enough with universal fairy tale motifs (not to mention a smattering of "The Prince and the Pauper") to make it appealing to viewers of all ages. While the presence of potentially cutesy devices like talking baby bears could have made the film cloying, Row's stunning evocation of an underworld lit like a Christmas tree makes this more ideal viewing on a double bill with Mario Bava's Hercules in the Haunted World or even Dario Argento's Suspiria. You rarely see colors like this, folks. The costumes, musical numbers, and performances are all sincere and professionally executed, and the fantastic characters are imaginatively conceived and thoroughly charming.

Appropriately, the Russian Cinema Council transfer on DVD is simply stunning and rivals Singin' in the Rain for the most eye-popping color transfer ever seen on a home video screen. However, for some reason the disc has been encoded to play in a squeezed format in 4:3 playback, leaving it letterboxed at 1.85:1 with everyone looking a bit squished. If you have a 16:9 compatible monitor, however, the image looks just fine and snaps back to the correct aspect ratio. (Note: this still doesn't work on DVD-Rom drives, however.) As with other Ruscico titles, the film comes in three different languages (the original Russian or well dubbed into English, Spanish, and French) with the usual array of nine optional subtitles. The 5.1 mix is extremely well done, with the music nicely spread among the speakers without sounding artifical or strained. A soundtrack sampler of three songs also kicks off the supplements, which also include clips from other upcoming fairy tale films (including more Aleksandr Ptushko titles!), a five minute featurette on the making of Barbara, a theatrical trailer, and a still gallery of photos, facts, and filmmaker bios. It's not as overwhelming as the treatment given to, say, Viy or Solaris, but this is a very satisfying disc and comes highly recommended for those who appreciate cinematic flights of fancy.

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