Once Upon a Time (dir. Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica): an oddball pair trying to find their identity and place in an abstract world

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, “Once Upon a Time / Byl sobie raz” (1957)

An amusing little cartoon with a circus freak-show organ music soundtrack, “Once Upon a Time” traces the adventures of an egg shape with four sticks for legs in its attempt to find an identity and a partner. It finds a set of feathers and a bird’s-head silhouette and together the unlikely duo encounter various cut-outs and images, and find a temporary home among a collage of live-action film shots and a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting in an art gallery.

The animation style looks crude and childish but the execution is ingenious and cuts across notions of identity, function and narrative. Small children may not really understand what’s happening here: they will appreicate the egg shape drawing a line on the blank page so it can walk over the line but not understand why the set of feathers behaves rather erratically, at once accepting the egg thing’s friendship yet ever ready to abandon its friend. There’s sly humour and the duo of the egg shape and the set of feathers behave like a Laurel-and-Hardy or Abbott-and-Costello pair. There may be an absurdist message in the narrative of the twosome as they eventually find a home and become virtually invisible in it, however comfortable and well-defined their new surroundings are.

The use of collages prefigures Terry Gilliam’s use of cardboard cut-out figures and it’s possible this and similar creations by Borowczyk and Lenica strongly influenced the Monty Python man in his own animated work.

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