Discover Ukraine Through Film – Ukraine for Kids
19 May, 2020
"Discover Ukraine Through Film" is a project by journalist Lee Reaney teaching Ukrainian history through cinematography.

Stuck at home and looking for something to watch? Why not use the time to brush up on your Ukrainian history? We’ve compiled the definitive list of 50 films to guide you through 1,000 years of Ukrainian history. 

The "Discover Ukraine Through Film" series was designed to allow audiences to maximize their time at home under quarantine by learning something new about Ukraine. Also stuck at home during this time are kids – many of whom are forced to study at home due to the closure of schools. It’s never too early to start learning, so let’s give them the opportunity to learn something new about Ukraine, too! Ukraine, of course, has a rich history of children’s films. From early hits like 1927’s "Ukrainianisation" to 1966’s Golden Shoe-winning "Little Bear and the One That Lives in the River", Ukrainian cinematographers have produced some of the finest films for youth this side of Disney. We begin by looking at the long-running "Cossacks" series that has been entertaining young Ukrainian audiences for over 50 years, and the influential "Once Upon a Dog" that has been inspiring memes in Ukraine since before the internet even existed. Mirroring Ukraine’s post-revolution cinematic Golden Age, the country has begun to also churn out world-class entertainment for kids, and we look at hits like the epic historical feature "The Stronghold", the magical world of "The Stolen Princess", and the star-studded "Polina and the Mystery of the Film Studio". We also look at the highly-anticipated "Mavka: The Forest Song", a film so beautiful it is already drawing Oscar buzz. This article is set-up slightly different than the rest of the series. Instead of offering places to “learn more” about the subject of the movie, we instead offer you more films for you to enjoy with your children. So, find something you and your kids will enjoy – and discover what you can teach them about Ukraine through film. 

Ukraine for Kids – Cinema (1967 CE – Present)

All About the Cossacks (Vse Pro Kozakiv) (Since 1967)

We begin with Ukraine’s quintessential children’s program – "All About the Cossacks". Dating back to 1967, it’s a series of short films about three Zaporizhian Cossacks – Burmylo is the clever one, Korotun is short and militant, while Sylach is the strong and sentimental type. With Cossacks being prototypically Ukrainian, these cartoons were one of the few opportunities for Ukrainians to identify with national folklore during Soviet Ukraine. In fact, the trio has become such a part of the national identity that they were unofficial mascots when Ukraine hosted EURO 2012. They even got a reboot, with the "Cossacks: Football" series that saw the Ukrainian heroes take on football teams from across Europe. "All About the Cossacks" is a compendium of nine different "Cossacks" short films, with the lovable Cossacks getting into trouble with people, creatures, and even gods from all over the world! Each episode is accompanied by an assortment of Ukrainian folk songs and features no dialogue, making it appropriate for children of all ages. New episodes were last released in 2018, when the "Cossacks’ Around the World" short films were released. Burmylo, Korotun, and Sylach have entertained generations of Ukrainian children, so there’s a great chance they’ll entertain yours too!  

Where to watch: For free on YouTube

Can I watch in English: There is no dialogue in the film

Once Upon a Dog (Zhyv Buv Pes) (1982)

There are plenty of remarkable things about the wonderful "Once Upon a Dog", an age-old tale of looking after others while they’re down. It’s not just the wonderful animation, which was recognized with the first-place prize at the 1983 Odense International Film Festival. It’s not even that the story was adapted from a Ukrainian folk story and featured traditional folk music – even though that was still frowned upon in Soviet Ukraine. It’s the remarkably simple tale of friendship and loyalty that transcends the boundaries of language and culture. Simply put – it’s a story you want your children to learn. Featuring a traditional Ukrainian hamlet (known as a ‘khutir’), plenty of Ukrainian songs, and an entertaining Ukrainian feast – your kids will be so entertained that they’ll be learning without even realizing! The popular wisdom in quotes from the story have been featured on t-shirts, magnets, and posters since long before the internet made such kinds of marketing profitable. "Once Upon a Dog" is one of Ukraine’s greatest folk stories and a memorable tale that your kids will take with them for years.

Where to watch: For free on YouTube

Can I watch in English: In Russian, with English subtitles 

Trailer: No trailer

Poverty (Zlydni) (2005)

The only film on our list from Ukrainian Independence to Revolution is the stop-motion short film "Poverty" (Zlydni). Zlydni in the Slavic world are folk creatures that bring misery and poverty to the poor folks they torment. Produced in Russia during a period when relations between the two countries were far warmer, "Poverty" was one of several Ukrainian tales featured as part of the long-running animated series "Mountain of Gems". A mix of "Chicken Little" and "Once Upon a Dog", this entertaining 10-minute frolic will show you the havoc zlydni can wreak, how they can be defeated, and – importantly – why you should be nice to your neighbors. Interestingly, the Russian director chose the zlydni to speak Russian, in contrast to the clever Ukrainian peasants. The inspired Ukrainian folk soundtrack is also a wonderful addition to this award-winning film. Be prepared to smile – this is a fun little romp!

Where to watch: On YouTube for free

Can I watch in English: Ukrainian, with English subtitles

Trailer: No trailer

The Dragon Spell (Mykyta Kozhymyaka) (2016)

Ukrainian children’s cinema hit the ground running in post-revolutionary Ukraine with Ukraine’s first-ever Golden Dzyga (Ukrainian Oscar) winner for Best Animated Feature – "The Dragon Spell". The film about a boy that embarks on a fantastical quest to save the world from a possessed witch was a smash with Ukrainian audiences, raking in 12 million hryvnias ($474,683) from the over 200,000 that saw it in the cinemas. This pioneering film was the first animated film in independent Ukraine to get an international release and was even nominated to be Ukraine’s selection for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. If your kids are into quests, magic, and dragons, be sure to tune into ‘The Dragon Spell’. 

Where to watch: From 113 hryvnias ($4.26) on iTunes or for purchase on Google Play

Can I watch in English: Yes


The Stronghold (Storozhova Zastava) (2017)

If it’s a rollicking, swashbuckling, time traveling historical epic adventure you’re after, you’ve got to check out Yuriy Kovalyov’s "The Stronghold". "A Kid in King Arthur’s Court" for Ukrainian kids, the film sees a young boy shot back 1,000 years to the times of Kyivan Rus. While learning to fight like a knight and figure out a way home, he falls in love and helps the forces of good defeat the forces of evil. Featuring gorgeous Ukrainian scenery, from the Rocks of Dovbush in the Carpathian Mountains to the Korostyshiv Quarry in the Zhytomyr region, the young protagonist gets to meet – and fight – with heroes he’d grown up learning about in school, like Oleshko Popowych, Dobrynya Mykytych, and Ilya Muromets. With plenty of charm and a surprisingly funny script, the film became one of the biggest releases in Ukrainian history. So, if your kids like time travel and history, battles of good vs evil, or teen romance – "The Stronghold" is the film for you. 

Where to watch: From 113 hryvnias ($4.26) on

Can I watch in English: Ukrainian, with English subtitles


The Stolen Princess (2018)

One of Ukraine’s leading animation studios, Animagrad is aspiring to be the Ukrainian "Disney". Adapting popular legends from Ukraine’s past, including the upcoming "Mavka: The Forest Song" (see below) and a film based on Roksolana, the Ukrainian queen of the Ottoman Empire, "The Stolen Princess" was the studio’s first major animated release. Thick on Hollywood tropes – you can play a game guessing which Disney movie inspired which character or plot point – the film tells the story of Ruslan, who has to go on a quest to save Mila, the princess he’s fallen in love with. While the plot is a touch convoluted, the beautifully animated film is full of non-stop action and wild characters. Based on Russian author Alexander Pushkin’s Kyivan Rus-set fairy tale "Ruslan and Lyudmila", the film has proved quite popular even outside Ukraine. In Romania, for example, it was No. 2 on its release, behind "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider", but ahead of major animated Hollywood releases like "Baby Boss", "Coco", and "Ferdinand the Bull". If your kids like Disney’s "Tangled", "Frozen", "Aladdin", or many other films – they may just find "The Stolen Princess" to be a very enjoyable Ukrainian alternative. 

Where to watch: From 133 hryvnias ($5.01) on iTunes or from 106 hryvnias ($3.99) on Google Play

Can I watch in English: Yes


Clara & the Magic Dragon (2019)

The first animated feature from Image Pictures, the new kids on the animated block, "Clara & the Magic Dragon" tells the story Clara and her three mischievous monkeys. Every 1,000 years a magical dragon returns to her fairy forest, but because of its magical abilities, it is hunted by the “Forces of Evil”. Cue Clara and her furry friends to save the day. Like a less entertaining "Minions" movie, "Clara & the Magic Dragon" is best suited for very young audiences or kids that really like overly sweet animals. The forest setting is wonderful, and the dwarves, gnomes, and wizards make for interesting supporting creatures, but "Clara & the Magic Dragon" is best saved for when you’ve exhausted your list of other must-see films.

Where to watch: On Megogo with a subscription starting from 80 hryvnias/month ($3.01) 

Can I watch in English: Not yet, but English subtitles were available in its theatrical run


Foxter & Max (2019)

If you really want to get an idea of the state of Ukrainian cinema today, look no further than "Foxter & Max". Sort of a Ukrainian "Spy Kids", the story tells of a young boy who finds a special can of spray paint. Frustrated at life, he paints a dog as graffiti – a dog that comes to life as an uber-intelligent, superhero robodog! The problem? The city’s most dangerous criminal wants that technology for himself. The special effects are outstanding, and the film was recognized with several Golden Dzygas (see Part 3 of this series) (Ukrainian Oscar) nominations last month, including Audience Favourite, taking home the Best Film Editing award. Released late last year, ‘Foxter & Max’ made its TV debut last week, winning its time slot among viewers of all ages. While your teens will love "Foxter & Max", this is one family film that should please almost everyone in your home.

Where to watch: From 1 hryvnia ($0.04) with promotion on Megogo (in Ukrainian only) - or from 144 hryvnias ($5.42) on iTunes (in French only)

Can I watch in English: The film was just released on Ukrainian TV last week, so the version with English dubbing or subtitles should appear soon. For more details, follow the Facebook page here  


Polina & the Mystery of the Film Studio (2019)

It’s no surprise that modern Ukrainian children’s cinema borrows from some of the world’s most popular film franchises for kids. “Polina & the Mystery of the Film Studio" is what you get when you cross Harry Potter with some more Disney-based character tropes – see if you can spot characters based on Cruella de Ville, Cinderella’s evil stepsisters, Aladdin’s Genie, and Quasimodo. After her parents die in a tragic fire at a film studio, Polina is forced to live with her evil aunt. There she finds a mysterious watch, out of which pops a supernatural guide who directs her to head back to the film studio. She is then transported to the magical world of cinema, where she is tasked with making things right. With a budget of 2 million euros, "Polina & the Mystery of the Film Studio" is the most expensive co-production in Ukrainian history. Ukraine’s Kinorob partnered with Belgian-French Wild Tribe Films to attract an all-star cast that includes Jean Reno ("The Da Vinci Code"), Virginie Ledoyen ("The Beach"), and Ukraine’s world champion strongman Vasyl Virastyuk, who has some serious acting talent. While it may not be the sum of all its parts, "Polina & the Mystery of the Film Studio" should still satisfy your Harry Potter-loving little ones.

Where to watch: With a subscription on starting from 80 hryvnias ($3.01) (in Ukrainian)

Can I watch in English: Not yet, but with a cast that includes Jean Reno – it’s only a matter of time 


Mavka: The Forest Song (Late 2020)

Expected to be the crown jewel of Ukrainian children’s cinema when it is released later this year, Animagrad’s much-anticipated "Mavka: The Forest Song" has generated more international buzz than any other Ukrainian children’s film. Based on a Lesya Ukrainka play of the same name, the film tells the story of a beautiful forest nymph – the eponymous Mavka – who must choose between her duty as a forest guardian and her human love interest, Lukash. Set in some of Ukraine’s most beautiful regions, including the Carpathian Mountains, the Buky Canyon, and a village in Vylkovo, "Mavka: The Forest Song" aims to introduce Ukrainian culture and folklore to a global audience. Producers have gone out of their way to ensure the film honors Ukrainian cultural traditions by hiring some of the biggest names in the country’s artistic industries – outfits were designed by Olga Navrotska, music was provided by Ukrainian ethno-rock legends Dakha Brakha, and academics were consulted to ensure a beautiful interpretation of Ukrainian myths, legends, customs, and rituals. The visuals are so stunning that even Miss Earth Ukraine 2017 used Mavka as the motif for her entry! The first Ukrainian film selected to pitch at the prestigious Cartoon Movie European animation forum in 2017, the film wowed audiences, earning a cover on Animation Magazine and rave reviews from Disney reps, who called it the most promising of the bunch. The Cartoon Movie forum was the launchpad for Academy Award-nominated animated films like "The Triplets of Belleville", "A Cat in Paris", "Chico & Rita", "Ernest & Celestine", and "Shaun the Sheep", so expectations are sky-high for Ukraine’s "Mavka: The Forest Song". You can already find product tie-ins at a Ukrainian supermarket near you, so the buzz is building to a fever pitch. For more information on its release, follow "Mavka: The Forest Song" online.

Where to watch: The film has not yet been released

Can I watch in English: With an international audience in mind, the film will certainly have English subtitles once released 


/ by Lee Reaney