Singing sad songs in a small Italian (?) town, ageing organ grinder Papa Carlo (Georgiy Uvarov) laments his lonely life. Yet as fate would have it Carlo comes into possession of an enchanted woodblock. From which he carves himself a little puppet boy christened Buratino (voiced by Olga Shaganova-Obraztsova) that comes magically to life. With his meagre savings Papa Carlo sends Buratino to school. Unfortunately the irrepressible puppet, unduly influenced by a scheming cat and fox duo, winds up in a string of misadventures that lead into the clutches of cruel puppet master Karabas Barabas (Aleksandr Shchagin) and... Hey, wait a minute! Haven’t we heard this story before?
Well, yes we have, sort of. Adapted from the novel by Aleksei Tolstoy The Golden Key is, as you might have guessed, a Russian retelling of Pinocchio: the children’s classic penned by Italian author Carlo Collodi. Tolstoy, a distant relative of the more famous Leo Tolstoy and a controversial figure among literati owing to his activities during the Stalinist regime (no less than George Orwell branded him a "literary prostitute"), is as renowned in his homeland for children’s literature as for his achievements as the so-called father of Russian science fiction (key texts include Aelita and The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin). Drawn from Tolstoy’s own vague memories of reading Pinocchio as a child, The Golden Key fashions a familiar but still new narrative that diverts from Collodi's text in several ways. Along with rechristening the puppet hero, Tolstoy adds new characters (replacing the Blue Fairy with the notably less useful Malvina (Tamara Adelgeym), a prissy puppet who flees captivity under Karabas along with Artemon the talking poodle and love-struck clown puppet Pierrot (R. Khairova)) and subplots (notably Karabas' greed-fueled for the titular key that opens the door to a magical dimension. The end result fuses Collodi's stern schoolmaster morality with uniquely Soviet idealism although it is worth noting Tolstoy saw Buratino as a spirited nonconformist rather than an unruly child in need of valuable life lessons. Spoiler warning: his take on the puppet does not end with him becoming a real boy. Or, to be honest, learning much of anything.
Penned for the screen by Tolstoy himself, with additional input from Nikolay Leshchenko and Lyudmila Tolstoya, the 1939 film adaptation has the added pedigree of direction and special effects by legendary animator, effects pioneer and fantasy filmmaker Alexander Ptushko. For the Soviet audience Ptushko was more or less Walt Disney, Ray Harryhausen and George Pal all rolled into one. Here, in his second film after The New Gulliver (1935), Ptushko got the drop on his American rival Disney’s Pinocchio (1940) by one year and mixed live actors with stop-motion characters decades before George Pal pulled off a similar feat in Tom Thumb (1958). Indeed Ptushko's near-seamless blend of puppetry, stop-motion animation, costumed actors and forced perspective trickery proves the film’s strongest asset; remarkably effective and lifelike, especially given the standard of the time. However, Ptushko's storytelling is much more scattershot and chaotic here than would distinguish his later more lyrical fairytale films (e.g. Sadko (1953), The Tale of Tsar Sultan (1966), Ruslan and Lyudmila (1972).
Indeed the lackadaisical plot dwells on a lot of laboured comedy skits and musical turns that may strain the patience of some viewers. Ptushko's camera tricks and stylistic flourishes keep things flowing nicely even whilst, as a relic of Soviet propaganda, the film proves far from subtle. Early on Papa Carlo sings a song extolling the virtues of a "wonderful country" where "all the kids are happy and old men are well fed." While Karabas, the money-obsessed puppet master that cruelly mistreats his "workers", is an obvious allegory for a heartless capitalist tyrant, the film casts Carlo as a stand-in for the older generation of Soviets. The generation that made the great sacrifice so their more fortunate children like Buratino can carry their hope for a socialist utopia. To hammer home the point even further a spectacular steampunk finale trots out a flying ship (a remarkable feat of in-camera magic) bringing heroic Russian soldiers who dole out justice then fly Buratino and his friends off to their socialist paradise of happy kids, well-fed old men and, er, Stalin...