The word “psychedelic” certainly applies when describing “Son of the White Mare,” director Marcell Jankovics’ stunning 1981 animated odyssey, which finally makes its way to American audiences nearly 40 years later. Viewers don’t have to ingest psychedelics to appreciate the visual poetry of every frame, but Jankovics’ masterpiece is a kind of drug trip in movie form. It’s also much more than that: Comprised of shimmering bright colors, it’s a Hungarian folk tale that bends, twirls, and morphs, with an all-consuming energy that never lets up. “Son of the White Mare” may be the greatest psychedelic animated movie ever made.
The movie’s hypnotic power works in tandem with a simple narrative arc — a fallen king, the noble son rising from the ashes to set things right, the usual jam. The animation invites readymade comparisons to two earlier stalwarts of the genre, “Fantastic Planet” and “Yellow Submarine,” owing enough to those precedents that it may as well be conceived on a grid. At the same time, the movie radiates with a refreshing energy, pushing the boundaries of the animated form even by its own hallucinogenic standards.
An epic poem and origin myth, Jankovics’ second feature takes place in an abstract land of shimmering light and geometric shadows. It’s here that a horse gives birth to a humanoid child, a feat made all the more impressive because she pulls it off while on the lam from shadowy beings. As she raises the child in the bowels of a giant tree, he learns of the way his father’s kingdom was destroyed by evil dragons unleashed from hell. The boy grows into a muscular figure known as Treeshaker, then finds his purpose following his mother’s death in searching of setting things right in the universe. István Vajda’s dynamic score, a blend of jarring electronic cues and symphonic swells, injects the mounting quest with constant urgency.
Having embarked on his path, Treeshaker meets two similarly powerful siblings — Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer — who marvel at their brother’s domineering abilities, and eventually choose to join him. Their adventures unfold in episodic terms, with Treeshaker gradually learning about the stakes at hand, which mostly involve fairy princesses trapped in spinning castles and rapid-fire combat scenes he endures to rescue them. The plot doesn’t exactly cut deep, but there’s sophistication to the way it barrels forward; Treeshaker seems to be fighting for all of us to set things right in a broken, barren landscape.
Fans of Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Samurai Jack” and “Primal” will find its roots in Treeshaker’s mesmerizing adventures, where scale and perspective play as much a role in the ride as the context surrounding them. It’s a vast, cosmic fight movie that keeps reinventing itself. You know where the story is going, but never how it will look as the movie blends an ancient, lyrical aesthetic with abrupt quasi-techno flourishes. There’s a seven-colored gnome who goes from foil to sidekick, and practically talks in autotune; a rhythmic forging of swords between the three elemental brothers feels like a Daft Punk music video that lost its way; and Treecrusher’s battles with a three-headed stone giant with huge testicles and weaponry that includes fiery orange barf. There’s a dark comic quality to each duel, with Jankovics anticipating video-game routines by at least 10 years (beat the bad guy, save the princess, repeat) even as that inevitability runs counter to the astonishing imagery at every turn.
“Son of the White Mare” can get silly, but never sophomoric. This movie unfolds like artwork etched into a cave wall and brought to restless life by an unclassifiable spell that only cinema can muster. Each scene is imbued with the timeless purpose of people fighting for their land, their rituals, and their very existence. It’s an 85-minute legend told in stunning light and sound, familiar to all and yet transcendent all the same — a mind-blowing journey with a lot on its mind.
“Son of the White Mare” is available for online rental on August 21 through several virtual cinemas and expands to more in the coming weeks. For a full list of available venues, go here.