MACBETH as a mouse? Prospero as a duck? The mind boggles slightly at the thought of animated Shakespeare. Most of the classics the Disney studio has made its own started life as children's books somewhat less complex, arguably less sacrosanct, than the great canon of Shakespeare's plays. And, in fact, Disney has never tried Shakespeare, but another, quite different, studio has.
The aim is to introduce people to Shakespeare, particularly children. Shakespeare has in the past been simplified for children in several short-story compilations, from Charles Lamb on. Within the last decade "Macbeth" was even marketed as a striking book-length cartoon strip. In Britain, there is a long history of teaching and acting this country's great playwright in schools, even down to primary level; though many adults protest they were permanently alienated from Shakespeare by the way he was introd uced to them at school.
Popular accessibility is often a principle of Shakespeare productions. He has long been found adaptable not only to different cultures, languages, and periods, but also to film rendition. Shakespeare is proof against virtually anything that can be done to him by way of reinvention.
And now six of his plays have been transformed into 30-minute "Animated Tales," aired internationally on television (by Home Box Office on cable in the United States) and available in some countries on video, with an additional six planned.
These short films are the result of a highly inventive cooperation between the former Soviet Union and British - specifically Welsh - animation companies. The films are a coproduction among S4c (Channel Four, Wales), BBC Wales, HIT Entertainment, Fujisankei Communications (Japan) and HBO (US). The idea was conceived in Wales, as well as pre- and post-produced there, but all the animation was done in Moscow.
In Wales, animator Dave Edwards, who was the series' producer and director, said that the coproduction introduced his Russian colleagues to Western parameters they were not used to - strict deadlines, for instance. The Welsh producers believed that the Soyuzmultfilm Studios in Moscow was the only animation studio capable of such a project. Shakespeare is well known in Russia. This studio, the largest of its kind in Europe, with a history as long as Disney's, called in animators from all over the Commonwe alth of Independent States for the two-to-three-year project.
The six producers, as each film vitally shows, brought distinctive vision and style to the radically shortened texts. The plays they have variously re-created are "Romeo and Juliet," "Macbeth," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Twelfth Night," "The Tempest," and "Hamlet." These are popular plays but not especially understandable to the 10- to 15-year-olds targeted by the producers.
Nor are the plays necessarily so simple to reduce. "Macbeth" proves suitable for brief treatment because it is a comparatively short play. The compelling drive of the tragedies make them far easier to compress than the intricate comedies, says editor-adaptor Leon Garfield.
Though the first three of these plays are made in the "cel animation" technique that Disney uses, the results are nothing like Disney. Indeed the films are not even like each other.
The appearance of "Romeo and Juliet" is that of a prettily imagined, colorfully illustrated Renaissance folk tale. The characters are more like types than individuals. Yet this dire love-tragedy weaves its fateful, tangled web with surprising subtlety and ends in a completely beguiling way: adult emotions are stirred.
The graphic boldness of "Macbeth's" animation mixes ferocity with fantasy: It's all "secret, black and midnight" like the hags. The supernatural element - Banquo's ghost, the witches - have a freedom to enter the imagination in animation they rarely attain on stage. The total effect is serious - and adult.
The "Dream" is different again, the work of a visionary Armenian animator named Robert Saakiantz, who does most of his own drawing. His adaptation of this complicated play is whimsical, eccentric, and wacky. Although, as with all six films, the abbreviated texts are spoken with classical resonance by the cream of British Shakespearean actors, this "Dream" doesn't feel English in the least. Yet it works amusingly enough in its greeting-card-imagery manner and has moments of magical twilight color, and a P uck who is unprecedented.
PUPPET animation is used to remarkable effect in "The Tempest" and "Twelfth Night." In the latter play, where the comedy is more pervasive, the exquisitely crafted and articulated little puppets, shifted frame by frame in answer to scrupulous observation of human movement, give the action rare enchantment and wit. In "The Tempest," the puppet Prospero is unforgettable, though overall this play, of the six, is the one whose symbolic undercurrents seem to have eluded either the animation or the abridgement .
"Hamlet," perhaps surprisingly, is the triumph of the series. It is art from beginning to end, truly like watching "moving pictures," a richly graphic rendering, in stony gothic settings, of a dark, dream-laden, haunted play.
The medium chosen is astonishing: painting on glass, each "frame" an image, with the moving figure slightly adjusted by repainting and the background filled in appropriately. This type of animation is virtually unpracticed in the West. The longest film previously made in Russia in this utterly laborious but profoundly subtle technique was by the same director, Natasha Orlova, about Chekhov, and lasted no more than 10 minutes.
Ms. Orlova's "Hamlet" is a masterpiece. Painted mainly in etching ink, the predominant, shadowy tone is actually close to etching in appearance. Added color brings expressive suffusion of mysterious light.
At times you almost believe you are watching a kinetic unfolding of the Hamlet story etched by Rembrandt. The movements do not have the same fluidity as cel animation; they rarely let you forget you are watching something drawn or painted. Yet Shakespeare is not lost. The medium serves the drama, and this long play not only survives its curtailment, but also has been given a new imaginative life by a form of animation that is as far above kid's stuff as "Hamlet" itself is above the Seven Dwarfs.