Animating the Folktale: The Puppet Animation of Ivo Caprino

Animating the Folktale: The Puppet Animation of Ivo Caprino


The classical fairy tales and fables have served as fodder for many film animators, from the pioneer days of Lotte Reiniger and Walt Disney onward. One filmmaker almost exclusively associated with this type of material is Ivo Caprino (1920-2001), Norway’s most famous practitioner of the art of animation.

The closest parallel to Caprino is perhaps George Pal of Puppetoons fame. Like Pal, Caprino patented his own method of animation early in his career, basically replacing the marionette operator’s strings with a remote control device. However, Caprino’s work is very different from Pal’s, both in form and content. His world is more whimsical, like a storybook, with little of the gag-happiness of the classic Hollywood cartoons. This in no way should imply that Caprino was a dull fellow. In fact, he frequently displays a wicked sense of humor, a major factor in his films’ appeal to adults as well as children,

Caprino was also naturally gifted as a pure filmmaker, in this regard bearing comparison with the best of Disney: The choices in shots, blocking and editing (you know, mise en scène) are pretty much faultless. Even more significantly—and again like uncle Walt—Caprino was a master of personality animation, becoming ever more expert at giving his characters clearly individual traits in movement and behavior as well as visual appearance.

The appealing look of Caprino’s characters was originally given to them by his mother Ingeborg, an artist and writer of children’s books. These characters have an instantly recognizable ”Caprino look”: round blue eyes frequently in motion, perhaps together with a lifted eyebrow, conveying either wonder or slyness. To invoke yet another one of the American animators, Caprino’s use of the eyebrow in many ways recalls Chuck Jones’ famous mastery of this subtle ingredient of animation ”acting.”

Of the handful of films Caprino made between 1949 and 1975, only 5 short films were based on folktales, yet these made such an impression that they are instantly associated with his name. In the early 1950’s, Caprino had planned to make a feature film about Asbjørnsen and Moe, the writers and story collectors of the 19th century who were the parallel of the Brothers Grimm for the Germans. This projected feature was to combine live action of the two story collectors at work with puppet animation segments of the tales themselves. When he failed to get funding for the project, the idea had to be scrapped and Caprino made the short films instead. This was probably a blessing in disguise, as the later films certainly benefit from his increasingly sophisticated mastery of the medium.

If the tales of Asbjørnsen and Moe are less well known internationally than those of the Brothers Grimm, they have several characteristics in common. A noticeably Grimmian element recurring in those films is the punishment of bad guys and the rewarding of good guys, according to their behavior towards a mysterious stranger with magical powers. The hero of Veslefrikk med fela (Veslefrikk and His Fiddle, 1952), the first of the folktale shorts, gets three wishes.  The hero of Askeladden og de gode hjelperne (The Ash-Lad and the Good Helpers, 1961) gets a magic ship for use on land, in the sea, and in the air. And so it goes!

Also in common with the Grimms, these tales have their share of unabated cruelty and sadism. In this regard, Caprino is certainly different from Disney; he doesn’t shy away from bizarre dark humor. In Reve-enka (The Fox’s Widow, 1962), a fox encounters a very cute little rabbit who is singing and dancing merrily; the ”that’s good, that’s bad” routine that follows is almost vaudevillian:

”Why are you so happy?” asks the fox.

”I got married today,” replies the rabbit.

”That’s good.”

”Oh, not all that good, for my wife turned out to be a shrew.”

”That’s bad.”

”Oh, not all that bad, for she had a luxurious home.”

”That’s good.”

”Oh, not all that good, for the home burned down, and everything we owned with it.”

”That’s bad.”

”Oh, not all that bad, for the wife was burned as well!”

The rabbit laughs maniacally as he continues singing and dancing happily on his way. This, in a puppet film for children?

For the 150th Anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth, Caprino was commissioned to make a film of the master’s fairy tales. Caprino chose Den standhaftige tinnsoldat (The Steadfast Tin Soldier,1955), surely one of his finest achievements. Unlike what happens in the Disney versions of Andersen (The Little Mermaid and the rendition of the Tin Soldier in Fantasia 2000), there is no happy ending here.

Caprino’s biggest ”cult” favorite, at least in his native country, was Karius og Baktus (1954), from a children’s book intended to impress upon the youngsters the importance of dental hygiene. The two eponymous rascals are tiny trolls living in a boy’s mouth. They protest in vain when the lad, due to the pain they cause, finally sees a dentist who flushes them out in the horrific finale! This truly bizarre classic caused a lot of Norwegian youngsters to actually sympathize with the antagonists, two anarchistic embodiments of dental decay.

Caprino directed two full-length features. The first, Ugler i mosen (1959) was mainly a live-action family feature with puppet animation segments. A mostly innocuous affair, again certain elements have a somewhat more adult appeal, especially a nightmare sequence straight out of 1920s German expressionism. The second, which turned out to be his last film, was Flåklypa Grand Prix (Pinchcliffe Grand Prix, 1975). Caprino’s most ambitious work, this was over four years in the making. The long toil was rewarded; this was the most financially successful of any Norwegian feature film and one of the most critically acclaimed as well.

By that time, Caprino had gradually shifted from filming his puppets in ”live action” with the remote control technique to mostly using good old ”stop action”—one frame at a time. It might at first seem surprising that it wasn’t the other way around, since stop action obviously made the filming process take much longer. Caprino, however, had come to realize that stop action gave him much more control of the characters’ movements, enabling him to make them ”act” all the more subtly.

My favorite, and Caprino’s own fave as well, is his penultimate short, Sjuende far i huset (The Seventh Father of the House, 1966). Also based on on the old folktales, this one is quite different from the others in the series. Until the finale, there is little of the magic of the earlier films, and no boyish, resourceful hero. What we have here is rather a tall tale that makes satuire out of the subject of ”passing the buck.” Our protagonist is a weary traveler who comes to a house and humbly asks for lodging and food. The first man he meets refers him to his father, who refers him to his father, and so on, each one sadly commenting that ”the decision is not for me to make.” By the third or certainly the fourth father, the viewer begins thinking that now, at least, there simply cannot be an even older generation living in the house—but of course there is, and another, and another.

The challenge of this film was to make each succeeding father both believable, memorable and, not least, truly hilarious. Caprino commented later that the film worked for him personally as a sort of catharsis: The endless succession of buck-passers personified for him the bureaucrats he had struggled with through the years in getting funding for his films.

Though not exactly unknown internationally—in fact his cult seems to be growing—the films of Caprino can be difficult to get hold of. For the adventurous collector there is a great 8-disc set (PAL format, region 0), Caprinos eventyrlige verden (See for info, or check out amazon). All his major films are included, with lots of extras such as commercials and TV interviews. The films themselves have optional English soundtracks as well as subtitles.

Waldemar Hepstein is an artist for No Comprendo Press, a publisher of alternative comics. Hepstein's work has appeared in the magazine Fidus and is collected in albums like 'Snork'.

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