Mavka: The Forest Song review: charming Ukrainian animation

Mavka in Mavka: The Forest Song.
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Directors Oleksandra Ruben and Oleg Malamuzh have created a sweet and colourful feature in Mavka: The Forest Song.

A colourful animated feature filled with magic and whimsy, Mavka: The Forest Song also has important messages at its heart. Based on the Ukrainian play The Forest Song, it begins by recounting an ancient tale.

Animated in impressionistic 2D, this introduction is reminiscent of a tapestry or storybook, similar in ways to the work of beloved Irish studio Cartoon Saloon. It establishes a world where an enchanted forest borders a human settlement, and a man comes to seek its powerful magic to save the life of his sick newborn daughter. Human greed leads to him returning with an army to steal all of the magic for himself. The damage to the forest is great, and its guardian then hides the woods from the humans, vowing to never allow them to enter again.

In the present day, now animated in intensely colourful 3D, Mavka awakens the forest at the start of spring. A magical creature, she’s stereotypically good in every single way. Naïve, super friendly, and animated with big innocent doe eyes, she also’s voiced with great enthusiasm by Laurie Hymes in the English dub. Mavka’s a simple character, but she’s likeable.

The world around her is what’s particularly interesting. The forest is full of interesting and strange magical creatures – her sidekicks especially so. Hush, voiced with complete goofiness by Marc Thompson, seems to be some kind of living tree-type being. Her animal companion – because of course, all female protagonists in animated films need one – is an inventive mix of cat and frog. They’re original ideas, and Mavka's creature design is one of its strong points.

In terms of the story, history begins to repeat itself when the wealthy and vain Kylina comes to the nearby town. She’s seeking people who are brave enough to enter the forest and bring its magic back to her. Local musician Lukas takes up the job, not out of bravery, but out of desperation. His uncle is very unwell, and he needs either money or magic to cure him. Once again, these are very simple and stereotypical characters. Kylina especially is a textbook villain. Voice actor Sarah Natochenny does a good job of conveying this, giving her a voice that contains only cruelty. As is to be expected, she has bumbling henchmen who provide some slapstick humour.

As Lukas and Mavka’s worlds become closer, there are some fish-out-of-water scenes that seem heavily inspired by the likes of Disney’s Tangled. Much like the typical character types, this lends itself to the feeling that this is something that’s been done before. The world and creatures are interesting, but the story itself is far from unique.

On a more serious note, though, Mavka has an important message about humanity needing to respect nature. With regards to the conflict between the forest folk and the humans, it’s hard to watch this and read it as anything other than a reference to the terrible ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. In fact, it’s hard not to think about that in general when watching this film. Generic or not, it’s a bit miraculous that despite the hardships Ukrainians are facing, they’re still making wonderful art like this. If you have young children that love bright animated films, Mavka: The Forest Song will certainly be enjoyed by them.

Mavka: The Forest Song is in cinemas now.

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