One of the most difficult years for filmmaking in the Soviet Union saw the production of Aleksandr Ptushko's film adaptation of one of Russia's most beloved heroic tales. National folklore was one of the very few sources from which artists of any genre could create free from the stifling control of state ideology. The choice of material was more than simply a strategic detail in the story of this film's success. Ptushko's "Sadko" brings to life a virtual catalouge of narrative devices, plot twists, and cultural values that have characterized both popular and high culture throughout Russian history. This fact cannot be overestimated in considering the success of this film, one of the most genuinely popular films of its time among Soviet audiences.
The ambitious special effects and spectacular panoramas for which Ptushko's films are known are here in abundance. The scenes set in India, portraying the splendor of the Maharajah's realm, are particularly memorable. But the appeal of the film is to be found less in the technical aspects of its making and more in the story being told and the manner in which it is told. Sadko himself is a curious but familiar mixture: a musician–merchant–warrior whose particularly Soviet-style social conscience is fully and harmoniously integrated into the portrayal of a genuine national folk hero. His care for the poor, his skill in music, his relationship to nature, and his loyalty to his beloved all resonante with the expectations of Russian audiences; Sadko's only temporary fault lies in his forgetting the long-term good in favor of short-term benefits for those around him. Ptushko never sacrifices this fidelity to the collective national imagination for the sake of technical experiments or artistic reinterpretation. The appearance of the long-sought Phoenix (Bird of Happiness) is in strict accord with the traditional portrayals of such birds of paradise: half-woman half-bird with a song that no man can resist. Only the power of a true artist, Sadko with his gusli, can counteract her malevolent force, with which the Maharajah intended to defeat the Russian adventurers. The contrast of true and corrupted art under the power of an oppressive regime, so skillfully encoded by Ptushko, was an idea to which Soviet audiences were no doubt particularly attuned. Other commonplaces are more obvious, such as the fearsome Tsar of the Sea, who turns out to be an amusing incarnation of the henpecked (usually peasant or merchant) husband commonly found in Russian folk tales. Sadko's final realization that true happiness is to be found at home coincides with the Russian understanding of rodina, an idea harmonious with but never fully coopted by the Soviet State.
The importance of national motifs in Ptushko's work justifies the notoriety of this film's release in the United States. In the hands of the young Francis Ford Coppola, the story of the beloved Russian musician becomes an adventure tale of a denatured Sinbad, and the film's Russian context becomes meaningless and at times incomprehensible. "The Magic Voyage of Sinbad" (1962) is some 10 minutes shorter than Ptushko's original—scenes that could not accommodate the dubbed English-language narrative were simply chopped up or cut out. Although visually almost identical with the Russian "Sadko," the American release completely obscures its Russian sources, going so far as to Anglicize the names of the production crew: Aleksandr Ptushko becomes known as Alfred Pusco.
In a development befitting both Ptushko's popular success and Coppola's dubious artistic achievement, "The Magic Voyage of Sinbad" has more recently become well known to a new generation of American youth as a result of its appearance on Comedy Central's Mystery Science Theater 3000.