In the face of Walt Disney’s worldwide dominance throughout most of the 20th century, European animators forged their own style and content. Fyodor Khitruk, who has died aged 95, was able to find new possibilities for animation in the Soviet Union, but only after the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s subsequent speech attacking Stalinism. The resulting “thaw” was the beginning of a renaissance of Soviet animation after two decades of socialist realism and fairytales. Khitruk took his inspiration not from Disney but from the cartoons of the moribund UPA (United Productions of America) studio, set up by a breakaway group of Disney animators in 1943.
As a director – in charge of the general design and concept – Khitruk developed a freer, less lush, more economical and more contemporary art style than the naturalistic graphic look and sentimentality of Disney. The frame was flatter and less detailed; the animations were lean, witty and often verging on the surreal. Always done with finesse, Khitruk’s short films were reminiscent of Paul Klee’s observation that “drawing is taking a line for a walk”, though they could not be labelled experimental or abstract, being narrative and character-based.
Khitruk was born into a well-to-do Jewish family – his father was an engineer – in the city of Tver in the year of the Russian revolution. Aged 14, he moved with his family to Stuttgart in Germany, where he studied at a commercial art school. On his return to the Soviet Union, his whole life changed after seeing Disney’s Three Little Pigs (1933), which he termed “a miracle”. It prompted him to study graphic design in Moscow. He graduated in 1936 and got a job in the art department at Soyuzmultfilm, the animation studios where he worked for the next 50 years.
The starting point of the new era in Soviet animation was Khitruk’s first film, Story of One Crime (1962). As most Soviet cartoons had been imitations of Disney, the film came as quite a shock, not only stylistically but also in its contemporary setting. The film sets out to explain why a very polite and peaceful middle-aged clerk should have bludgeoned two housewives to death with a frying pan. Almost justifying the murder, in flashback, it shows how the clerk has suffered a sleepless night because of the constant noise made by his unthinking neighbours in his apartment block. The film can be seen as a critique of aspects of Soviet life such as overcrowded housing and the neglect of the needs of the individual.
Khitruk’s films could be divided into two types: socially aware cartoons, such as Man in the Frame (1966) and Island (1973), and those made specifically for children. Man in the Frame, a pointed satire on bureaucracy, is perhaps his most experimental film. It focuses on a man confined to a small picture frame who is detached from the real world, which is represented by photographs, including the recurring image of a girl skipping. Island, which won the Palme d’Or for the best short at the Cannes film festival, shows the isolation of a man in the modern world. He is stranded on a tiny island from which, despite many passersby and visitors, he is not rescued. Instead he becomes an object for tourists to gape at, for missionaries to convert and for colonialists to claim.
The beguiling Boniface’s Holiday (1965), made for a wider age range, told of a likeable and friendly circus lion, only showing ferocity only in the circus ring, who goes on holiday to see his grandmother in the African jungle. There, he is confronted by a group of little children for whom he performs tricks.
Khitruk’s greatest claim to fame in his homeland were his three cartoons based on AA Milne‘s Winnie the Pooh books: Winnie the Pooh (1969), Winnie the Pooh Goes Visiting (1971) and Winnie the Pooh and a Busy Day (1972). Called Vinni Pukh, the anthropomorphic bear is, in appearance, totally unlike EH Shepard’s illustrations but is faithful to the spirit of Milne’s character, being friendly, naive and full of good intentions. He is also spunkier and less soppy than Disney’s interpretation. The delightful trilogy has pleased generations of Russian children, who were not aware of its original source.
Arguably one of the best movies, in any form, about the trials and tribulations of movie-making is Khitruk’s Film, Film, Film (1968). In the space of 20 minutes, it follows the making of a feature from its conception to its premiere, including having the script approved by various committees, interference from the producers and constant warnings about the schedule and budget. Though relevant to most countries, it was particularly potent in the USSR, where censorship was so prevalent.
Khitruk’s last film as a director was Lion and Ox (1984), a powerful parable of the cold war, with the brilliantly drawn title characters, initially at odds, becoming friends, only to have the friendship broken by a mischievous jackal.
In 1993, Khitruk and three other leading animators (Yuriy Norshteyn, Andrey Khrzhanovsky and Eduard Nazarov) founded the SHAR Studio animation school and studio in Moscow. In 2008, he published a two-volume book, The Profession of Animation, as a guide to future generations of animators.
He is survived by his son, Andrey, and two grandchildren, one of whom is the violinist Anastasia Khitruk. His wife, Maria Motruk, who died in 1984, worked as an animator on most of his films.
• Fyodor Khitruk, animator, born 1 May 1917; died 3 December 2012