The Snow Queen: Mirrorlands represents the fourth in a series of Russian digimations that once upon a time - back in the halcyon days of 2012 - was sort of based on Hans Christian Andersen, and can thus claim to have beaten Disney's Frozen to the punch in the animated space race. (It won that battle, while comprehensively losing the box-office war.) On this front, it's clear our Eastern friends remain ambitious and competitive: this sequel's visuals are actually more sweeping and dynamic than some minor British and American animation studios have managed for their launch projects. The issue is how those visuals connect up with every other element. Four films in, and we're getting tangled up in the mythology that has carried this series further and further away from Andersen's source material; this is made less persuasive in turn by flatly humourless English-language translation and a makeshift American redub. (One of the earlier instalments invited the unlikely pairing of Sean Bean and Bella Thorne into the voice booth, but no comparable expense has been spent on this one: if the film's Western handlers had recruited, let's say, Jedward and Darren Day, it would have been an improvement on the performers they've gone with.) You'd no longer know this tale had Scandinavian or Slavic origins from the film itself; that rootlessness is both why it's been imported, and also one of its chief failings.
As far as I could tell, the series now unfolds in parallel realities. This Snow Queen, a villainess we rejoin imprisoned in her kingdom of ice, spies an opportunity to regain her erstwhile powers by escaping into the film's Middle Ages equivalent and kidnapping our independent, adventurous heroine Gerda. Yet the storytelling is so manic - gabbling through its plot inside 80 minutes - that even this reading may be considered provisional and open to correction. The animators' energy has been diverted into the generation of crashing setpieces: a chase between flying steampunk galleons that would likely set Andersen to spinning in his grave, a hop-skip-jump over a fiery lake by way of contrast to all the snow, a last-reel punch-up between giant robots that suggests Andersen ultimately held far less sway here than the production's canny accountants. The one area in which those animators are still some way behind their Western rivals is having the patience to develop the emotional hook viewers can cling to amid this smashing spectacle; so the film generates light, colour and motion - but no greater stakes or jeopardy than one perceives in the average screensaver, and that screensaver wouldn't suffer from the philistinism that insists these characters be redubbed by no-name actors in the same blandly Californian cadences. If distributors can put in the time, money and effort to subtle the subtleties of Studio Ghibli releases for international audiences, could we not also caption a film like Mirrorlands? If it didn't help teach our kids to read, it might impress some other useful understanding upon them: that film has its own distinct languages, and that it can still be delicate, hand-tended art, rather than interchangeable content cranked out for quick bucks.
The Snow Queen: Mirrorlands opens in cinemas nationwide this Friday.