Marcell Jankovics’ animated psychedelic powerhouse of a film, Son of the White Mare, transports viewers to a world where horses give birth to humans, long-lost siblings meet and pledge loyalty to one another on a whim, and ‘dragons’ package themselves in humanoid form. And that’s merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this recently restored classic.
Based on Hungarian folktales, Jankovics’ film (dedicated to all “nomadic peoples”) follows Treeshaker, the eponymous son of the white mare, as he journeys into the underworld to save three princesses from the captivity of three dragons of varying strength (yet similar appetites). As an infant, Treeshaker’s mother told him a story about a king, a queen, and three sons. One day, the sons approached their parents and relayed their shared desires to marry and subsequently receive a fair share of the kingdom. The king and the queen acquiesced to their sons, so off they went and got married, excited to no end to share their newfound land with their beloveds.
As the white mare tells it, “There was a grand wedding banquet, behind the beyond.” However, before seeing off their sons, the king and queen were adamant about one thing: Do not enter those closed and locked palaces. As happens in this world and those of fantasy, curiosity leads to downfall. Someone goes exploring where they shouldn’t and, in so doing, break the chains of three dragons. Hell is unleashed, and the world is turned upside down. This leads to the demise of the kingdom and the imprisonment of the princesses. In a beautifully circular fashion, the white mare’s story ends with giving birth to her son in secret.
Upon hearing this, Treeshaker (who had not yet earned his name) becomes eager to grow big and strong. He will defeat the dragons, liberate the princesses, and restore peace to the kingdom. It takes him years to acquire the strength needed for his journey. His mother remains at his side, witnessing her son’s ascension to “Treeshaker” before her death.
The death of Treeshaker’s mother becomes the catalyst for his sojourning to the Underworld, a journey that reunites him with his two long-lost brothers, Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer. Together, they cook porridge and spin rope in the hopes of finding an entrance to the Underworld.
Of course, I can relay no more of this story. It’s not that I’ve said too much. There’s enough packed in the film’s 85-minute runtime to leave viewers speechless and mesmerized. Rather, I hope I’ve said enough to pique your interest. The restored Son of the White Mare should be celebrated not only for its artistic beauty and for the pleasure of experiencing this film.
Son of the White Mare was made over two years in the late 1970s, with its original Hungarian release in October 1981. For decades, audiences on the opposite side of the Atlantic could only see the film via online bootleg copies. It didn’t receive an official North American release in 2019, when a digital restoration played at the Fantasia International Film Festival in Montreal, Canada. The copy that played at FIFF was a restoration collaborated on by L.A.-based Arbelos Films, a restoration and distribution firm, and the Hungarian National Film Institute—Film Archive.
The collaboration between Arbelos and the Hungarian Film Institute came about when the former reached out to the latter, which lead to a two-year-long conversation regarding the process of restoration, which would be supervised by Jankovic. According to an interview on Cartoon Brew, David Mariott, Arbelos’ co-CEO and co-founder, considers his company a champion of “lost masterpieces of path-breaking animation.” So, Son of the White Mare, which he considers a “masterpiece”, seemed like the ideal project.
As far as the responsibilities that Arbelos and the Hungarian Film Institute took on, the former handled the initial restoration while the latter provided feedback. According to Craig Rodgers, co-CEO and co-founder of Arbelos, “the final restored images were then color-graded at the lab in Budapest with the director. All of the audio restoration was handled by the lab in Budapest as well. The final picture and audio master was then approved by us…”
After 40 years of dwelling in obscurity, the plan was to give Son of the White Mare a theatrical run in March 2020. But much like in the world of Treeshaker, hell was unleashed, and the world was turned upside down, as cinema retreated to the virtual realm in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
So, for now, audiences will have to rent the film on Vimeo. Nevertheless, much like the ever-present theme of rebirth in the film, perhaps when movie theaters awaken from their slumber, we’ll one day experience Son of the White Mare on the big screen.
“Restored Hungarian Cult Classic ‘Son of The White Mare’ Will Get U.S. Theatrical Release. Cartoon Brew. 1 August 2019.
Dudok de Wit, Alex. “‘Son of the White Mare’: The Journey of the Cult Classic’s 4K Restoration (Interview)”. Cartoon Brew. 21 August 2020