On August 19, 1960, the Soviets launched the satellite Sputnik 5, the first successful attempt to send animals into space and bring them back alive. Among the passengers on that historic journey were a rabbit, dozens of mice, a pair of rats and two dogs named Strelka and Belka. What better way to commemorate a superpower’s technological achievements than with an animated talking animal movie? Space Dogs: Tropical Adventure is the third in a series of films that follow the trials and triumphs of Strelka and Belka, and to Western audiences it might seem like the bottom of the barrel for pandemic entertainment. Yet the animation and character design are vivid and colorful, and the plotting, however convoluted, is engaging enough. What makes the 80-minute product highly unusual is that director Inna Evlannikova has fairly explicitly created something that follows in the tradition of the golden age of propaganda; so much so that the film could well be subtitled Tropaganda Adventure.

What else can you say about a cartoon where both a rocket ship and a wizened walrus tour guide/photographer proudly feature a hammer and sickle? And where an industrious, smart-alecky rat (Lenny, voiced by Alexander Machado), when inspired to name famous duos, leads with Marx and Engels before mentioning Lennon and McCartney?

Highly unusual. The plot revolves around Strelka and Belka’s latest assignment to investigate a mysterious whirlpool that has formed above Cuba (of course). Spoiler alert: the culprit turns out to be a pair of aliens, one elephantine, the other like a metallic Jar Jar Binks. Armed with a hip-hop musical number, the duo rap about their dying planet, and how they’ve come to Earth to get resources to save their environment. It can be difficult to parse the messaging here, but what makes it so effective – for adults, if not children – is that the until-now competent 21st-century computer graphics then turns, in the middle of this production number, into a keen replica of mid-century space-age animation.

Yet is this Tropical Adventure subtly subversive, even satirical? The heroic comrades Strelka (Mauriett Chayeb-Mendez) and Belka (Maria Antonieta Monge), are after all voiced by a pair of actresses whose slight Russian accents sound nearly indistinguishable from each other. This may on one level signify unity, but, with inflections that resemble the deadpan, stilted delivery of Siri or Alexa, the space travelers sound robotic, while the more colorful voicings belong to characters like Lenny, a holdover from the previous entries in the, um, trilogy. (Granted, the rat could be simply a well-developed instance of sit-com wise guy.)

And what is one to make of the film’s depictions of Cuba? Lenny the rat follows his friends’ adventures there, where he finds a population that mostly consists of lizards, parrots and crocodiles. The rat then falls in love with a female rodent (a nutria?) named Maria, possessed of a rear end of Kardashian-esque proportions. The character’s climactic musical number, after she reveals (spoiler alert) that she’s a spy, is called “Sinful Maria.” (We’re not making any of this up!) Exactly who was Space Dogs made for, and why are there now three of them? At a crucial juncture, Strelka (or is it Belka?) exclaims, “Nothing is like it’s supposed to be on Earth – everything is upside down!” That’s a fair assessment of where the typical viewer may land with this movie. It’s fascinating on a level beyond its function as children’s entertainment, and the attempt to cater to multiple generations of Russians makes it the weirdest piece of propaganda you’re likely to see this year.

When one character exclaims, “Nothing is like it’s supposed to be on Earth – everything is upside down,” it’s a fair assessment of where the typical viewer may land with this strange piece of Russian propaganda.
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Space Tropaganda

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