Professor Balthazar: Zagreb's biggest cultural export
Ask people to name the most universal work of art to come out of Croatia in the last 50 years and they may not immediately think of nominating a children’s cartoon about a tubby little man with a badly-drawn beard
Professor Balthazar is arguably Zagreb’s greatest cultural export, delighting children across former Yugoslavia and much of northern Europe during his 1970s heyday. It was also one of the most psychedelic children’s cartoons of all time, featuring the kind of mind-altering patterns and kaleidoscopic colours that have ensured it cult status among generations of giggling young adults.
With the original ten-minute episodes re-released on a series of six DVDs, now is the perfect time to catch up on the Balthazar legacy. The lead character is a kindly old scientist who solves people’s problems and calms their worries, frequently resorting to his hurly-burlytron machine to generate the most unexpected solutions. The stories are set in Balthazar town, a fanciful amalgam of Zagreb and an Adriatic city. As a role model for children, Balthazar is hard to beat: the adventures are comfortingly old-school in the way they promote co-operation, ecological consciousness and faith in scientific progress. And the English-language voice-over is so good that never for one moment do you feel as if you are watching an eccentric Central-European cartoon.
The Balthazar character was created by Zlatko Grgić, who directed an animated short featuring the professor in 1967, and was persuaded that the idea was strong enough to support a whole series. Grgić, together with Boris Dovniković, Boris Kolar and Ante Zaninović worked on the scripts, while academically-trained artist Zlatko Bourek was responsible for providing the films with their inimitable pop-art-on-acid style.
Grgić and colleagues were all stalwarts of the Zagreb Film animation studio, which had been a leading creative force in cartoon production ever since its inception in the mid-1950s. Indeed the studio produced Croatia’s only ever Oscar, with Dušan Vukotić’s Surrogate winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Film in 1961.
Time Out has successfully tested all six Balthazar DVDs on a five-year-old British child, and if you’re a fan of old-fashioned, ironic science fiction involving kindly old professors and their wonky machines, then the professor makes the ideal home-bound souvenir.