Ever wonder what Czech director Jan Sverak has been up to since “Kolya” (1996), the winner of the best foreign-language film Oscar? Although none of the helmer’s recent work has achieved comparable impact, his films continue to rate highly in the domestic market: His latest, the delightful musical romp “Three Brothers,” was 2014’s Czech box office champ. Boasting upbeat music with rhyming lyrics, this humorous, satisfying pic weaves a trio of classic fairy tales into a connecting story about three brothers seeking adventure and life lessons. The result could work some magic as mainstream international fest fare.
Released the same year as the Rob Marshall-helmed adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” “Three Brothers” is also a fairy-tale mash-up that springs from theatrical antecedents: It’s based on a series of mini-operas penned by Zdenek Sverak (the helmer’s father and screenwriter-star of “Kolya”) and composer Jaroslav Uhlir, who are renowned for their myriad works for children. Zdenek Sverak is credited as screenwriter on the film, while co-composer Michal Novinski adapted Uhlir’s original stage score, adding dramatic tension for the screen.
At one time, “Three Brothers” was slated to be a live-action film with animation (a la Sverak’s previous pic, “Kooky”) but wound up as a live-action film with numerous live animals and an enormous grandmother-swallowing wolf puppet. Far less dark than “Into the Woods,” the story is framed by a tongue-in-cheek introduction by a narrator (played by Sverak pere) to an audience of unseen but certainly heard youngsters.
The English subtitles name the eponymous siblings as Jack (Tomas Klus), Joe (Vojtech Dyk) and Matt (Zdenek Piskula). Their wise, loving parents hope that experiencing the wide world will rid their rustic offspring of certain negative personality traits (rashness, indecisiveness and absent-mindedness, respectively), so that when they return, they can run the family farm. The lads each enter the realm of a different fairy tale, discovering a love interest in the process. Their female counterparts are Princess Rose (Katerina Kosova) from “The Sleeping Beauty,” sassy Red Riding Hood (Lucie Maria Stouracova), and the orphaned beauty Marian (Sabina Rojkova) from a tale called “The 12 Months,” which involves a wicked stepmother and stepsister, and a dozen powerful figures who control the seasons.
A joyous singing-and-dancing showcase for dozens of the best-known Czech and Slovak actors, the good-looking film was shot on a budget of approximately $2 million, but looks many times more expensive. Part of the visual splendor is due to some spectacular Czech locations, including the eerie sandstone formations of the Adrspach Rocks; the historical chateaux of Hluboka and Zleby; the Benedictine monastery in Kladruby; a swamp lake near Borkovice; the table mountain Decinsky Sneziik; and a South Bohemian mill in Hoslovice. Moreover, as in “Into the Woods,” the music provides an extra layer to the pic’s well-known narratives, making the humorous elements even funnier and the touching moments more poignant.
Dynamic widescreen lensing by Sverak’s longtime d.p. Vladimir Smutny leads a first-class tech package. The pic scored well-deserved Czech Lions (national film awards) for production and costume design, as well as makeup and hair.