Russian children’s film maestro Alexander Row helms this colourful, charming Soviet era fantasy, which comes over like the communist riposte to capitalist values and The Wizard of Oz (1939). Gorgeously shot in lustrous candy-colours, the film tells the story of Olya (Olya Yukina), a mischievous little girl who proves rather a handful for her caring Grandmother (Tatiana Barysheva). “If only you could see yourself through other people’s eyes”, sighs the old woman. Looking into a mirror, Olya meets Yalo (Tatyana Yukina), her identical double who is absent-minded and careless where our heroine thinks herself thoughtful and neat. The twin girls are drawn into the Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors, ruled by the buffoonish King Torrap (Anatoli Kubatsky), who resembles Olya’s preening, pet parrot back home. Its strange, animal-like inhabitants have twisted perceptions of themselves thanks to the all-pervasive magic mirrors. Foolish, old ministers see themselves as dashing and young. Ugly women think themselves beautiful.
By royal decree, all straight mirrors are banned because they tell the truth. The girls happen upon poor, young Dneirf (future Oscar-winning director Andrei Stapran) being cruelly whipped by slave masters for refusing to make crooked mirrors, and decide to help him escape the Death Tower. Aided by kindly castle servant Aunt Aksal (Tamara Nosova) - whose name in Russian translates as kindness spelt backwards, Olya and Yalo disguises themselves as royal pages and sneak inside the palace, only to become embroiled in a plot to seize the throne involving slimy, green Doat (Arkady Tsinman), the sinister Lord Etik (Andrei Fajt) and his beautiful, but poisonous daughter Elipter (Lydia Vertinskaya).
Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors is one of many East European children’s films from this period that aim for social satire. The story is fairly explicit in its commentary, attacking a society’s ability to manufacture a false reality, which here translates as American capitalism. Row’s satirical slings range from playful jibes, as crazily dressed dancers mock rock and roll loving American teenagers (“My dad calls people like that, loafers”, remarks Olya), to black comedy where three, scheming aristocrats unknowingly poison each other. Also worth noting is a song sung by courtiers that sounds suspiciously like Disney’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?”, which was once a capitalist rallying cry during the Great Depression. When viewed by a modern audience, the idyllic view of communism and Soviet Russia seems rather naïve, yet if capitalists can make movies that celebrate their values, why can’t Marxists? Movies like this were a major influence on anime wizard Hayao Miyazaki, who binds his own Marxist idealism with a more universal understanding of human nature.
The film’s quality is such that it is possible to ignore politics altogether and just enjoy it as a good, old-fashion morality tale. The core idea of a society enslaved by a self-manufactured false reality, carries a powerful message regardless of time or place. Grandmother’s closing observation, that if we all saw ourselves through other people’s eyes we might behave more considerately, also rings true. On an aesthetic level, the film is a sumptuous, sweetshop for the eyes: outlandish Dr. Seuss style sets daubed in glitter and gold, and drenched in rainbow colours straight out of an MGM musical. Over the top sight gags leave this looking like a live action cartoon, well served by the charming performances of twin child stars Olya and Tatyana Yukina.