The Walt Disney Company has been really active in Russia in recent years. Last year, it bought 49% of the shares of 7TV and launched its own television channel in the country. Yet Disney’s attempts to enter the Russian market did not begin with that event. With The Book Of Masters, the company had already fully financed a film for Russian audiences exclusively in 2009. On paper, the partnership sounds like a match made in heaven. Russia possesses a rich tradition in folk and fairy tales, after all, and who would be better suited to make use of it than Disney, which has long been known for its adaptation of exactly such stories?
The Book Of Masters by director Vadim Sokolovsky is indeed a fantasy tale. It narrates two stories: that of the curse that befalls the daughter of the witch Baba-Yaga (Liya Akhedzhakova) and turns her into the Stone Queen (Irina Apeksimova) as well as the story of Ivan (Maksim Loktionov), a young orphan who works as an artisan and must become the hero of the film. The movie can essentially be regarded as an attempt at creating a family-friendly version of The Lord Of The Rings or an Eastern counterpart to The Chronicles Of Narnia with a distinctive Russian spirit.
The script makes a nice use of references to the country’s fairy tales and legends, such as Leo Tolstoy’s Ivan the Fool or ‘Baba Yaga’s Hut,’ which might be best known to Western audiences from the classical piece in Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. It also employs further allusions to European fairy tales, even some of those previously adapted for the screen by Disney. The Stone Queen’s talking mirror (Valentin Gaft), for instance, is a clear-cut hint at Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs. Similarly, the element of Katya (Maria Andreeva), the Stone Queen’s stepdaughter and Ivan’s love interest, might be equally inspired by that story and Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm.
The Book Of Masters looks and sounds great. Shot at an $8 million budget, it certainly does not fall short of Disney’s American films or any other blockbusters for that matter. The special effects are very good. In that department, it is up to par with the most expensive productions. A nice audiovisual presentation, however, is not everything, and the movie definitely has its fair share of negatives. The screenplay is probably the biggest culprit. While it does a nice job of introducing the characters and initiating the storyline in the first half, it becomes downright ridiculous at times during the second part. Some of the components it uses may have been designed as an attempt at adding some extra humor, but they do not work at all.
So how can we sum up The Book Of Masters best? In short, it is an ambitious failure. Disney surely wanted to launch its Russian productions with a great film, probably an East European counterpart to its own 2007 feature Enchanted, and the project definitely had the potential to become one. It is dragged down by a script that often tends be more of a nondescript mess, which borrows too many elements from various sources that do not mesh, than something that should attract family audiences. Unfortunately so, because the special effects, cinematography, and cast all could have offered more if they had been bolstered by a good screenplay. The Book Of Masters is not truly horrible film, but it is also far from excellent.