Shakespeare on Film: The Animated Tales

Shakespeare—The Animated Tales (1990-4)

Shakespeare—The Animated Tales was a remarkable co-production between S4C, the Cardiff-based Welsh arm of Channel 4, and Moscow-based animation studio Soyuzmultifilm, founded in 1935 and known as “the Soviet Disney.” Adapter Leon Garfield scripted a dozen abridgments, which won three Emmy Awards and have screened in more than 50 countries. They merit collective rather than selective recognition, firstly because they provide an accessible introduction for young viewers to 12 plays and, secondly, because they triumphantly demonstrated to viewers of all ages that a medium too often associated solely with children’s stories could realize adult Shakespearean imagery and themes with as much imagination and poetry as live-action film.

The 25-minute limit on each play made Garfield’s task extraordinarily difficult, and almost every retained line of dialogue, he explained, had to “carry the weight of narrative.” The scripts inevitably emphasize plot over character (Romeo and Juliet becomes almost absurdly frenetic), and use formal prose narration, delivered in voiceover, to set the scene and bridge gaps (“A fierce ambition burned in the heart of Richard,” announces Alec McCowen at the start of Richard III, and so on). They are admirably explicit with the more violent tales (Hastings’s head is served on a platter in Richard III) and only a few of the omissions unnecessarily soften the mood (no imprisonment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night) or unbalance twinned storylines by neglecting a subplot (less than a minute of the Shrew is devoted to Bianca/Lucentio).

Conventional cel animation was used for Julius Caesar and Othello (both have the robust, chiseled heroes you might expect to find in an animated DC Comic), a rather bland Romeo and Juliet, a Macbeth as shadowy and brutal as an adult graphic novel and a Dream whose garish colors made it the only Tale to feel like a children’s television cartoon.

Three films—Hamlet, Richard III and As You Like It—saw every frame hand-painted onto glass suspended beneath the camera, photographed and then repainted, giving every character’s movement a blurred quality, which in the Doré-like Hamlet created an astonishing visual representation of the Prince’s melancholy and Elsinore’s shadowy froideur.

The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Taming of the Shrew and The Winter’s Tale used puppets made from metal skeletons, around six to 10 inches high and animated by stop-motion filming… It is not surprising that the magic of The Tempest and Dream lent themselves to the visual freedom afforded by animation, but the more realistic Tales also contain dozens of arrestingly fluent effects that might seem laughable if placed beside flesh-and-blood actors but perfectly suit this more expressionistic form.

100 Shakespeare Films

Extracted from 100 Shakespeare Films by Daniel Rosenthal, BFI Publishing, 2007. Reprinted by kind permission of BFI Publishing/Palgrave Macmillan. To order a copy of100 Shakespeare Films and other books from the BFI Screen Guides series, visit their website at

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