Jack Frost: Of Bears, Mushrooms, and Witches
by Fae Awareness staff member, KV Taylor.
Before I begin my discussion of Jack Frost (aka Father Frost, The Crystal Star, and Morozko), I ought to make a confession:
I stumbled over this movie through a pared down version in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. While I consider it the best TV show of all time, you watch it expecting terrible movies, not awesome ones. But the awesome happened this time–or, at least, I think so. (My husband, not so much–and I think it gave some of the older generation flashbacks.)
It’s one of my favorite MST3K episodes. If you’re not sure about watching this strange movie, try it that way, first. You can get almost any episode on You Tube in its entirety, usually broken up into 10 or so parts. This is the first one of Jack Frost–if you’re not an MST3K watcher, you’re probably not interested in the bits with Mike and the bots, so skip to about the 6:00 mark. You’ll laugh so hard you might just cry.
Now that’s out of the way, on to the movie! Jack Frost is an admittedly bizarre, but awfully wonderful retelling of the Russian fairy tale of “Father Frost“. You know the sort: the good, obedient girl gets a handsome husband and dowry, the bad girl comes to a bad end.
But there are a few things that make the movie much more than that, and I’ll endeavor to give a list of my favorites–though I’m in no way qualified to give an introduction to Russian fairy tales. I read them as a child, but I’ve not made a study, so I apologize for sounding like an amateur.
The first few points come directly from a wonderful JoMA article by James Graham (who was good enough to allow me to quote him here–thank you, sir!) on Baba Yaga in film:
The Crystal Star (Father Frost, Jack Frost) 1964, directed by Aleksandr Rou
Contains all of the characters from the fables: the bandits, mushroom spirits, matchmakers, one of the most articulated depictions of Baba Yaga’s house, and a direct (yet comic) attempt at cannibalism on her part. Natalya Sedykh stars as Nastenka, one of the weirdest and eerie beauties ever committed to film.
Which I think is the best summing up of why this movie’s so visually interesting. The care and effort put into producing each familiar character, the weird, eerie beauty of the whole thing, is at once trippy and fascinating. And as Mr. Graham said to me later, Baba Yaga, in spite of the comedy, is still pretty damn scary.
But this quote also sums up what I think is the greatest achievement of this movie: it takes the Father Frost tale and weaves all of these characters, all of these side adventures, into the heroic journeys of Nastya and Ivan. Looking at that list of elements, we could add in man-bears, beggars, angry stepmothers, swaggering braggarts, and all other manner of fairy tale tropes. There are other complete tales referenced, such as that of Baba Yaga and little Ivanushka (she tries to eat him, he outwits her), or of Ivan the bold prince, which make up the male half of the narrative. And yet the story doesn’t lose its original thread, the story of the abused daughter who meets with Father Frost in the woods.
The pacing is, as Graham also pointed out to me, stately. “It should be taken in the context of Russian culture where slow, slow pacing carries the story over vast expanses of frozen tundra. In that it is more like the films of Tarkovsy than the other Russian fairy tale films.” It’s true; there are moments when a modern audience might despair of it every coming around to the point. But in truth, it reminds me very much of an opera, both in structure and its use of the fantastic. Which might be why I actually enjoyed the pacing. Too much opera makes one tolerant, I’m sure.
It’s a weird friggin movie, no mistake. But it seems to me to distill a lot of what makes fairy tales so fascinating into one surprisingly coherent package. So if you don’t mind feeling like you’re on a long, strange trip for an hour and a half–or if disappearing and reappearing mushroom men won’t give you nasty flashbacks–Jack Frost is worth an hour and a half of your time, for sure.
Also, there is apparently an iPad game based on it. I need this.
 The MST3K version lacks most of the songs–though the music is still there and brilliant–and has other bits cut out. I’m not sure if it’s because they cut everything down to make it fit their format, or if this is just the version of the film that made it through the Iron Curtain. Word is they pared down the propaganda on them and imported through Finland–seeing as this is a “Russo-Finnish” co-production, it seems likely.
 For the interested, here’s a syllabus for a course on Russian fairy tales taught at the University of Pittsburgh. Lots of great resources there for history, interpretation, and the stories themselves. There are also two very good articles at JoMA on the subject by Helen Pilinovsky that helped me immensely. Part I is an overview, giving something of the origins of the form and then situating it within the Russian literary tradition as it changed and expanded. Part II is more specifically oriented to Baba Yaga and makes a reference to the Ivanushka story, then takes that influence up through Gaiman, Wolfe, and Card.
 Not to mention just bears in general. There are at least two spots in this movie where there are shots of bears doing things. Things that have absolutely no relevance to the plot. Don’t get me wrong, the bear cubs gathering giant mushrooms are pretty cute but… what?