Marcell Jankovicsnote (born October 21, 1941) is a Hungarian animation director and animator, art historian, illustrator and former politician.
Part of the second generation of Hungarian cartoon creators, his career began in the 1960s at Pannonia Film Studio, where he became one of the nation's most revered animators thanks to the success of works like Gustavus, Hungarian Folktales, and the country's first feature length animated movie Johnny Corncob. His short films enjoyed international acclaim, including an Oscar nomination and a Palme d'Or, for which international press has labeled him the "Hungarian Walt Disney" or "Hungarian Hayao Miyazaki". His animated works are characterized by social commentary, a love for mythology and old folk traditions, nationalism, adult imagery and deeply deranged animation. Jankovics is a strong devotee of "Doing It for the Art", he sees animation as a form of art and expression over mere entertainment and money-making. A staunch traditionalist, he has written innumerable papers, published and illustrated books and held presentations on the meaning of folk tales and primarily European mythology. He greatly dislikes escapist futuristic Science Fiction, special effect-driven blockbusters, conventional Disneyesque art and 3D graphics, and though his works have transitioned to digital, he continues to draw his art on paper even in the 2020s.
His main obsession is metamorphosis, transforming characters, objects, places, colors or entire scenes into various things, using hypnotically flowing animation and constant motion to express symbolic and thematic meaning in ways only the animated medium can allow. This has lead to his works being routinely described as psychedelic or trippy, a reaction he has grown used to but dismisses as superficial, maintaining that his visuals are always designed with serious artistic intent.
In spite of his early successes, Jankovics's line of work is characterized by massive production and distribution hardships, declining mainstream attention, clashing with studio heads and somehow always missing out on his award ceremonies (of his 30+ awards, he only received one in person). The final message of The Tragedy of Man, which took over twenty years of struggle to complete, may as well be his personal mantra: "The end is death, life is a struggle. And man's end is the struggle itself."
Yet, his works proved popular within arthouse circles, he remains a well respected cartoon creator in his home, and internationally he is probably Hungary's most famous animation director.
List of worksFilms
- János vitéz (Johnny Corncob aka Johnny the Valiant, 1973)
- Fehérlófia (Son of the White Mare/Horse, 1981)
- Ének a Csodaszarvasról (Song of the Miraculous Hind, 2002)
- Az ember tragédiája (The Tragedy of Man, 2011)
- Gusztáv (Gustav aka Gustavus, 1964-1979)
- Magyar Népmesék (Hungarian Folktales, 1980-2012, worked on a number of episodes as a director, animation director or writer)
- Tangram (1986)
- Mondák a magyar történelemből (Tales/Legends from Hungarian History, 1986-1988)
- Toldi (proposed 2021 release, extended Compilation Movie version tentatively planned)
- Jónás és a cet (Jonah and the Whale, 1963)
- Szilveszteri legenda (New Year Legend, 1965)
- Tendenciák (Tendencies, 1967)
- Hídavatás (Inauguration, 1969)
- Air India (commercial film, 1970)
- Mélyvíz (Deep Water, 1970)
- Az élet vize (The Water of Life, 1971)
- Mással beszélnek (The Line is Engaged, 1971)
- Add tovább aka Add tovább, szamár a végállomás! (Dirt, 1973)
- Sisyphus (1975)
- Küzdők (The Struggle, 1977)
- Prometheus (1992)
- Teremtés (Genesis aka Creation, first episode of an unproduced Bible movie/series, 2015)
- Scenes from The Tragedy of Man have also been released as separate shorts with preliminary voice work between 1990 and 2009
Other notable contributions
- Lúdas Matyi (1977); animation designer
- Háry János (1983); animation director
- He was an art consultant for Emperor of the Sun; an abandoned Disney project that later became The Emperor's New Groove (2000)
Tropes relating to his works and person
- Absurdism: Beyond being a recurring theme of his films, it also holds true for his career. His Oscar-nominated short Sisyphus, wherein he both animated and voiced the eponymous mythological character, was created to vent his frustration over Johnny Corncob's draining production. Much like Sisyphus' task in the short, his later movies just became harder and harder to complete.
- Adaptation Expansion:
- In Son of the White Mare, the entire opening scene, the Mare's backstory and the ending are his additions to the story, and he also embellished the story with a lot of symbolism and even a twist reveal. All this was done to preserve some part of his original ideas for the film that were rejected by the censors.
- The Tragedy of Man: The 20th century "Wheel of Misfortune" scene that demonizes modernity and pop culture was of course not part of the original play, which came out in the mid-1800s. The phalanstery scene was also expanded with allusions to dystopian tropes, with 1984 cited as an influence.
- In Toldi, he added an extra scene of the titular hero's mother tending to his son as he's on the run and hunted for murder. Jankovics felt it was a huge oversight that this was ommitted from the original poem, as it weakened the family bond between the two. The role of Toldi's mother also had to be axpanded because the story lacked a female character otherwise.
- Art Shift: While finding stylistic unity between background art and character animation has been one of his main goals as an artist, he likes to throw different art styles around a lot too. The best example is probably The Tragedy of Man, in which every scene has its distinct art and animation style.
- Book-Ends: He began and intends to end his directorial career by adapting major works of 1840's Hungarian literature: Sándor Petőfi's Johnny the Valiant (aka Johnny Corncob) in 1973 and János Arany's first Toldi story in 2021. As a bonus, Petőfi and Arany were close friends and greatly influenced each other in real life.
- Concept Art: Sadly, very little of it survived or is available to the public. In the 70s and 80s, most concept art done at Pannonia was simply thrown out or carelessly discarded all over the studio floor, with the workers literally trampling all over them. Archiving them was not a priority. However, Jankovics's original drawings for an unmade Bible adaptation eventually became the basis of his illustrated Bible book and he still keeps a personal collection of certain old concept images.
- Creator Thumbprint: Lots.
- High regard for history and old traditions.
- Cynical outlook on modernity and the downsides of progress.
- Deliberately un-Disney-like art styles.
- Fantastical and dreamlike imagery that often crosses over into surrealism or psychedelia.
- Unabashed depictions of artistic or naturalistic nudity, but no eroticism, not even in sex scenes.
- Ludicrous amounts of symbolism, which at times take precedence over things like plot, characters or pacing.
- Unexpected cartoony humor.
- And most of all, an obsession for metamorphosis.
- Deranged Animation: Almost everything he touched, since he doesn't think animation should strive for realism. Son of the White Horse in particular has been lauded as one of the most unusual looking animated films ever made.
- Disappeared Dad: In his youth, Hungary's Communist regime sentenced his father to lifelong forced labor under fake accusations of crime. Though he was thankfully freed during the 1956 revolution after only a few years of imprisonment, Jankovics was sent to a boys-only catholic school in the meantime to get a patriarchal upbringing.
- Doing It for the Art: One of his most defining traits, and one that has caused him to fall out of favor with some of his higher-ups who wanted more mainstream appeal and bigger box-office returns. Even after Hungary's traditional pre-capitalism studio system had gone under, he spent decades of his life bringing The Tragedy of Man to screens. He's gone on record to say he's not out for fame, but to do what appeals to him, even if he has to struggle and suffer for it. He also admired his late colleague György Kovásznai, who had rejected medical treatment for his illness to focus on his art instead.
- "Eureka!" Moment:
- Was already an experienced animator when Air India commissioned his studio to animate their airline commercial, and one representative suggested a scene transition where one setting morphs into another. Jankovics claims animation finally "clicked" with him on that meeting, and from that point on, presenting ideas via transformation and metamorphosis became his lifelong obsession.
- It was during his work on Johnny Corncob that Jankovics discovered his passion for folklore and the meaning of folk symbols, the study of which went on to define the rest of his life and career.
- Good Old Ways: His core belief is all values and virtues come from the past. Jankovics is all about culture, tradition, religion and their preservation, mainly of European Christianity but his art and writing also delve into the Paganism of more ancient times. He finds pop-culture, escapist entertainment, modern social/political trends, the intermingling of different cultures and religions chaotic and at times outright terrifying, and he fears for the white man's future. The "Wheel of (Mis)Fortune" scene from The Tragedy of Man, a unique addition to the source material on his part, represents his abjectly cynical feelings on where society is headed. Son of the White Mare likewise associates technological progress with evil dragons and the diminishment of old values and traditions. Further, he outright hates modern blockbuster films and futuristic Science Fiction, believing they divert people's attention from the preservation of old cultures. With regards to his art, he still trusts mainly old-fashion pencil and paper as opposed to digital tech.
- Green Aesop: Together with our old traditions, Jankovics fears for the preservation of the environment, and this fear forms part of the framework for Son of the White Mare where the clarity of Sun Gods and constellations is contrasted with pollution and destructive technology.
- Humans Are Flawed: Given his love for old mythology and religion, this theme comes up a lot in his films, whether to shine a light on concrete social issues or more abstract concepts about the nature of artistic endeavor and people's personal struggle. The central message of The Tragedy of Man is that humanity will never be able to find the perfect ideology.
- History Repeats: Is a proponent of this idea, hence his urging for people to take their values from the past. Originally this would have been the central theme of Son of the White Mare too, until Communist censors stepped in and forced him to tone it down.
- It's Not Porn, It's Art: While nudity and sexual themes do feature in his films, he deliberately avoids eroticizing them in any way, to preserve their artistic (or, on occasion, comedic) nature. That said, nor does he sugarcoat them — Son of the White Mare is chock full of phallic and yonic imagery and multiple characters prominently have their "parts" showing as part of the film's symbolism. Johnny Corncob disguises its love-making scene as a series of suggestive but playful symbolic images and turns raping and pillaging into gags. The Tragedy of Man approaches prostitution and adultery in a matter-of-factly way and its uncensored, deliberately obscene classical Roman orgy scene is performed by creepy, decaying, but historically appropriate statues.
- Mandatory Unretirement: He never gave up on animation, but the 2011 film The Tragedy of Man was said to be his final film as a director. In the late 2010s, as no other suitable director took on the task, he was "roped in" one last time to helm the series Toldi, alongside its potential expansion into a feature film, which Jankovics definitely considers his final directorial work.
- Metaphoric Metamorphosis: His primary focus as an artist and animator, it shows up in practically all of his works. Characters, objects or entire sceneries are often in flux to express meaningful themes and ideas in visual form.
- Name's the Same: Shares his name with both his father and grandfather, though the latter used the outdated spelling "Jankovich".
- Off-Model: One reason so many of his movies have relatively few rigid animation constraints, with Johnny Corncob even taking inspiration from Yellow Submarine, was that their animators could go off-model without a hitch, as opposed to wasting precious time and money on training them to keep the character designs and art style perfectly consistent in each scene. This helped speed up production tremendously. Deliberately changing the appearances of characters or environments is also a key component of his metamorphic animation style. As observed by Peter Chung, motion and change is ingrained within Jankovics's character designs.
- Patriotic Fervor: Being a staunch right wing conservative with a deep appreciation for the past, he feels strongly about his nation's history and identity, all the way from the Hungarian people's (and their relatives') ancient pagan roots to their Christian traditions. His first feature film Johnny Corncob was met with scorn by Soviet distributors for its blatant nationalism, and wasn't even released in the Western world (with the exception of Italy). Jankovics has held presentations and supervised exhibits based around Hungarian history, and has long held connections to Hungary's current right wing government party. In his view, his nation's cultural sovereignty and pride have been going downhill ever since the first nomadic Hungarian tribes came to Europe in the 800s, which is one reason he has been highly supportive of the country's fiercely nationalistic post-2010 politics.
- Public Domain Soundtrack: Listened to classical compositions, mainly Mozart's Requiem, to get inspiration for The Tragedy of Man, and these compositions ended up in the finished film itself.
- Public Domain Stories: Almost all of his films are adaptations of folk tales, ancient myths or 19th century literature.
- Shown Their Work: Being a folklorist and art historian, he can most assuredly back up every stylistic choice in his films with literally thousands of pages of research and quite a few books. He'd even won an award for his folklore essay he made in preparation for Son of the White Mare. He always partakes in his films' animation process (sometimes animating as much as a third of his movies) and has single-handedly crafted a number of black and white shorts as well, all so that he can point to a shot or a scene and rightfully proclaim "all that you see was me".
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: An outsider would say he leans more toward the cynical end, but given his career's difficulties and his experience with life under Communism, that's not too surprising. In fact, the constant fight between idealism and cynicism is the main theme of The Tragedy of Man, and similar subjects crop up in almost all of his works: there's hope for humanity, but they keep messing it up. Though a staunch theist, Jankovics doesn't believe in a happy afterlife, and has a similarly down to earth disposition about his life and works, using the time allotted to him to keep creating as long as he can, to live as a struggling artist. He cannot stand fairy tale cheese and happy endings that characterized many Disney classics, nor does he believe that underachievers deserve the same treatment as talented people — for example, he got mad at the Academy Award winning Hungarian short film Sing for its unrealistically positive and altruistic message. As for his outlook on humanity and culture itself, on people's relationship with their old virtues and with nature, he's not too fond of their trajectory but he never gives up hope.
- Sliding Scale of Realistic vs. Fantastic: Despite veering far into fantastical territory with his themes and especially his animation styles, which almost always aim to be as detached from reality as possible, the underlying messages and symbolism of his films are very much tied to reality in some shape.
- Sliding Scale of Silliness vs. Seriousness: Apart from Gustavus and some other early comedic shorts (which nonetheless dealt with serious issues), he's mainly been preoccupied with respecting and adapting old myths and literature in a serious manner, he resents that Disney retooled their dramatic Kingdom of the Sun into a comedy, and The Tragedy of Man might be one of the bleakest, most no-nonsense animated films ever made. Yet, occasionally his absurd comedy and visual gags do shine through in some of his other works if the material allows for it, like in Johnny Corncob, Son of the White Mare.
- Sliding Scale of Animation Elaborateness: His films may not have pristine, technically elaborate animation (indeed, Johnny Corncob often feels clunky and crude, most of The Tragedy of Man looks half done and relies strongly on Limited Animation, and even Son of the White Mare has many rough spots, all due to their incredibly troubled productions), but on a sheer artistic and creative merit, they rank among the most elaborate animated movies ever made. It's no wonder many have described his works are top-level psychedelia, and in fact, during the production of White Mare, the animators actually threatened to quit and at least one of them even cried because the animation and art style were so unlike anything made before. His monochrome short films too are artistic and stylistic marvels in their own right.
- Take That!: The transhumanism scene from The Tragedy of Man, in which Lucifer gradually dismembers and reassembles Adam into a space vessel heading into nothingness, only for Adam to reject it at the urging of Mother Earth, was Jankovics's way of saying that science fiction dealing with space travel and other futuristic concepts (in particular the Star Wars film series) is all meaningless bollocks that only gives humanity false promises. The criticism of the ideals of Lenin, Hitler, Stalin and 20th century communism in general, were also his personal additions to the story, as they came about long after the original play the film was based on. The Wheel of Misfortune scene is likewise a giant "Take that!" at pop culture, late 20th century trends and events and modernity.