Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: the Walt Disney Company has acted for years like A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh is theirs and theirs alone, as is demonstrated once again with Christopher Robin. Luckily for all of us, the Soviet Union gave no shits about Western intellectual property laws.

This isn't the place for a grand history of Soviet animation, but it is, I think, the place for a quick chat about Fyodor Khitruk. Born in the 1917 interregnum between the end of the Russian Empire in February and the beginning of Soviet Russia in October, Khitruk was hired early in the history of Soyuzmultfilm, the state animation studio. It wasn't until 1962 that he was finally given a chance to direct a project, and he made it count like few other individual filmmakers have ever made it count: his first short, The Story of a Crime, is one of the key films in the history of Russian animation, and probably therefore world animation. Throughout the Stalin era, animation in the Soviet Union had generally degraded to banal kitsch (though, at times, very well-executed kitsch), and the medium had become entrenched in people's minds as just fluffy nonsense for kids, much as it did in the Anglosphere after World War II. The Story of a Crime changed that: taking advantage of the ongoing Thaw under Nikita Khrushchev,  Khitruk employed a crisp modernist style, rather like that of the beloved UPA in the United States, to tell a satiric tale of harried adult life in the Soviet Union.

It opened the door to an extraordinary flourishing of smart, politically-minded animation that arrived at just the wrong time: Leonid Brezhnev rose to power just two years later and the cultural liberalism of the Thaw was quickly turned off. Two things had changed, however. One is that the artists had grown more clever; they found ways of working in adult themes and concerns even when officially making simple cartoons (also, there is some indication that the censors paid less attention to animation than other cinema, and some level of modest satire still made it through without controversy). The other is that the artists had simply gotten better, and the style of even the most uncomplicated kids' animation from the late '60s and early '70s is of a wholly different substance than what the studio was producing in the '50s.

Khitruk himself was part of this overall trend, of course, and he spent the 1960s alternating between kids' shorts and more overtly grown-up material. His biggest success, at least measured in terms of ongoing cultural impact, came in 1969, when he directed the first of three adaptations of English author A.A. Milne's 1926 children's book Winnie-the-Pooh.

[Time to discuss nomenclature! Not very much has been written in English about Khitruk generally or his Milne adaptations specifically, but the larger part of what does exist translates the titles as "Winnie-the-Pooh" rather than transliterating them as "Vinni-Puh" or "Vinni-Pukh". For the sake of maximising clarity, I will not follow this practice. Instead I will use "Winnie-the-Pooh" (with hyphens) to refer to the 1926 book and original character, "Winnie the Pooh" (without hyphens) to refer to the Walt Disney Productions films and character, and "Vinni-Puh" to refer to Khitruk's films.]

Khitruk's Vinni-Puh is a slender thing of ten minutes, adapting only the very first chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh ("In Which We Are Introduced to Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees"), while the 1966 Disney short Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree adapted the second as well (Khitruk maintained that he had not seen the Disney film before starting his project, which is a little surprising given the similar approaches they take to adapting the same material, but it's certainly plausible just based on animation lead-times, and the presumable difficulty a Soviet filmmaker would have in accessing brand-new American cartoons). He soon had a chance to catch up, releasing a sequel that covered Chapter 2 ("In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets into a Tight Place") in 1971's Vinni-Puh Pays a Visit, and then in 1972 rounding off what now turned out to be a trilogy with Vinni-Puh and a Busy Day, skipping ahead to Milne's Chapters 4 and 6 ("In Which Eeyore Loses a Tail and Pooh Finds One"/"In Which Eeyore has a Birthday and Gets Two Presents") which Disney had not at that point adapted (Chapter 6 would later form part of the 1983 short Winnie the Pooh and a Day for Eeyore, released by Disney but not produced in-house).

So the material of Vinni-Puh is awfully familiar, though I concede it likely would not have been to Russians in 1969. Vinni-Puh (Yevgeny Leonov) is prancing through the woods, singing a bouncy, maddeningly upbeat song (Mieczysław Weinberg provides the quite wonderful music for this and the two following films, marrying inane sing-songy tunes of the sort a child might concoct with a couple dreamy, winsome pieces that sound like 19th Century classical music, and for all I know might be). He then hears some buzzing, concludes that the buzzing is probably bees, and the bees have probably made honey, and he eats honey, so this all works out quite well. In no time, he's borrowed a balloon from his friend Piglet (Iya Savvina) and covered himself in mud to appear like a small rain cloud. This does not fool the bees.

It hews very closely to the text of Milne's story, as far as I can tell. This is of course not very far, given that I speak no Russian and am relying on fansubs. But the cadences of the thing are the same, particularly in the early stretch when Vinni laboriously sketches out the chain of associations that led him to the honey. The largest break from the source material is the absence of Christopher Robin: instead of being a young boy's toys, the animals in Khitruk's trilogy are actually animals, left to wander without the anchor of a reasonably sensible young human (Khitruk and his collaborators felt that Christopher Robin would have been "too superior" to the other characters). This is by no means a little change, but taken purely on their own terms, the Vinni-Puh films don't feel like they've lost anything. Indeed, this is maybe the point on which these films most distinguish themselves from the other versions of this material. While Milne was writing household fables for English children, and Disney's films felt like literary adaptations that were still mostly about an indistinctly Anglo-American child's playtime, the Khitruk films feel instead like ancient folk tales about the crafty ways of animals, as familiar in Russia as any other place in the world, given a modern polish mostly through their sardonic sense of humor.

That is the other major point of distinction. The text of the stories is so close that it hardly seems possible for Vinni-Puh to be so much more, I don't know how else to say it than so much more Russian than Milne's stories. A lot of this ultimately rests on the voice acting. And again, I don't speak the language, and I don't even know that the particular intonations that connote e.g. "nervous" in American English do the same thing in these films. But there's definitely something going on in Leonov's performance, which was sped up to raise his tone to a more childish squeak, but which retains a flinty edge. And there's a distinctly sly overtone to Vladimir Osenev's narration, which has a sarcastic edge to it which feels largely alien to Milne. The films are remarkably gratifying just to listen to them, and hear the little curlicues of vocal inflection, which give the film's a more philosophical, mordant tone, and coupled with Khitruk's general willingness to let dialogue scenes play out more slowly and aimlessly than the Disney filmmakers did in the same moments leads to an eerie feeling of craftiness from the bear of not-so-little brain. I might make the following crude distinctions: Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh has to work through things methodically because he's a young child, Disney's Winnie the Pooh has to work through things methodically because he's a charming idiot, and Khitruk's Vinni-Puh has to work through things because he is a naive philosopher who has elected to re-work everything in the world from first principles.

So there's some Philosophical Reasoning for Young Folk, some mordant humor - Eeyore, who appears only in Busy Day, where he is voiced by Erast Garin, has a hopeless edge to his depression that's much darker than Disney's version of the character, mostly thanks the drawn-out pace of his first scene - and a good splash of acidic sarcasm. That this still feels entirely charming and friendly is testament to the inherent appeal of the characters, and certainly to the buoyant energy of the performances, also including Anatoly Shchukin as Rabbit in Pays a Visit, and the magnificent Zinaida Naryshkina as a more openly conniving (and also gender-swapped) Owl in Busy Day. I have fallen into the habit of re-watching these films without subtitles (in part because the very best-quality versions available online don't have them), and it's remarkable how very pleasurable it still is just to listen to the six voice actors, whose chipper tones provide a fairly clear throughline of mood.

All told, more than enough to make this a top-shelf cartoon series, if a somewhat harsh adaptation of Milne, and that's without even mentioning how the things look. Which is an important thing in animation, and especially here. The films have a perfectly unified aesthetic (in fact, they are quite consistent in all ways, which is why I've been talking about them as one thing; I suppose I prefer Vinni-Puh most and Pays a Visit least, but these seem like silly distinctions to make), one that equally combines Russian folk art in its color palette of reds, greens, and yellows and the kinds of shapes that tend to dominate, along with the sensibility of a young child's crayon drawings from the world over: huge white patches to represent the sky, ground, walls, or whatever else, a lack of any perspective, with only the vertical position of objects to define spatial relationships, and the backgrounds even look like they were smudged in by children. It's beautiful, colorful, delightfully simple, and it matches well with the mostly adorable character designs (I don't much care for the rail-thin Rabbit). Vinni is himself a wonderful little cartoon, squat and bumpy, like two potatoes glued one atop the other, with arms that seem to be little more than thick brush strokes in a contrasting shade of brown (and which, when he goes about marching and singing, separate out from his body to exaggerate his momentum and give his peculiar dual-ovoid form a greater sense of flexibility. It is an adorable little march, one that is simultaneously bouncy and clunky). Eeyore and Owl aren't quite as cute, but they're more complex and evocative: the former moves in slumping gestures while his tiny legs gesture in the most interesting character animation of the trilogy, while the latter has some extraordinarily fluid motion in her eyes and her beak, the latter of which moves around her face so as to create some easily readable emotions from a character who otherwise doesn't have much of an expressive face at all.

The film's beautiful, primitive look and ridiculously charming characters aren't by any means, the most sophisticated thing going in Soviet animation in that generation, and Khitruk certainly did more ambitious things in his more explicitly adult-oriented projects. Still, Vinni-Puh and its sequels are absolute treasures of the medium. It's of course the farthest thing from surprising that Disney's versions of these stories has dominated throughout the world - they're nicer and more charming (I will confess to enjoying them more, myself) - but if we can have several dozen variations on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I have to think that we can tolerate two different animated embodiments of Winnie-the-Pooh, especially when the outlier is such an entrancing, absolutely masterful piece of colorful cartoon-making. If you love the animation medium, this is essential viewing; and if you don't love the medium, this is the kind of dazzling, snarky, sweet thing that might be able to bring you around.